Android Phones: Here We Go Again?

It’s been widely reported that the first phone using Google’s “Android” operating system will be announced for sale by T-Mobile this month – perhaps as soon as Tuesday. With a full-fledged operating system aimed squarely at web users, it’s worth thinking about the impact that this announcement will have on web workers.

The obvious competitor to match Android phones up with is the Apple iPhone, which has become the new darling of many high-tech workers. While the iPhone has its warts and its detractors, it also has many committed users, and recent software updates seem to have cured many of the early teething pains. If you’re already locked into an iPhone contract, the launch of Android phones probably means nothing to you. But what if you haven’t jumped yet? How do you choose between the two? Here’s a short list of points to consider.

1. System Integration: With the iPhone, Apple makes the hardware and the software, depending on phone carriers to supply the network. With Android, the story is more fragmented: Google makes the software, signs up hardware vendors to make the phones, and gets carriers involved as well. This gives Apple an undeniable edge on integration, just as they have in the operating systems arena when compared to Windows; when you own the hardware and the software stack, it’s easier to ensure a uniform, working user experience. On the other side, Google can hope to benefit from competition and innovation on the hardware side – and indeed, the specs for the initial Android phone, with a keyboard, good Bluetooth support, and a decent camera, put it ahead of the iPhone in some respects.

2. Carrier Choice: In the United States, universal 3G coverage is still a myth. If you live in an area that T-Mobile serves well but AT&T leaves blank, that’s a point for Android. If Android phones get picked up by multiple carriers, they’ll have a wider potential audience.

3. Politics: The iPhone is looking like an increasingly-closed platform, with seemingly arbitrary decisions being made about who can sell software for it. Android is open from the start, with a promise of open access for application distribution as well as open source for the operating system itself. But while this will appeal to some developers, it’s unlikely to matter to end users – who will care more about whether Android’s openness gives them more or better applications to choose from.

4. User Interface – Looking at the early builds of Android, the best you could say was that they worked. But they had nowhere near the slickness and user experience of the iPhone. The final release version of Android may catch up here, but I suspect that the “wow” factor will still be higher for the iPhone.

T-Mobile and Google will undoubtedly be delighted if they get all-night campers to buy the first Android phones. It strikes me that’s unlikely to happen; few companies get that sort of visceral consumer response that Apple has been able to cultivate. But there are enough points in favor of Android that I think it will get some traction in the web worker and high tech community. Most likely, though, it won’t take sales directly from the iPhone. Rather, they’ll both continue the pressure on Windows Mobile, which may end up being the third-place also-ran among the tech elite.

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