Quick Look at the T-Mobile G1, Android SDK 1.0

The handset is currently available only to existing T-mobile customers, but will not ship untill Oct. 22, when it also becomes available to new customers. Priced at $179, the phone is already cheaper than the iPhone. And the choices of data plans, either $25 a month for a limited plan or $35 for an unlimited one, make the G1 an attractive purchase.

Executives from Google, HTC, and T-Mobile jointly unveiled the first Android-based phone on Tuesday. The G1 handset has a touch screen that slides out to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard, a 3.1 megapixel camera, and a built-in Amazon MP3 store. It supports integrated Wi-Fi for surfing and e-mail, GPS services, and 3G and EDGE for mobile Web. The G1 can sync with POP3 and IMAP e-mail, has Bluetooth capabilities, and a dedicated search button.

The dedicated search button is a nice change: on many smartphones, it take a few keystrokes to launch a Google query.

G1 users get free push GMail access, wireless syncing with Google calendar, and support for YouTube. Google Maps on the G1 feature a built-in compass that rotates 360 degrees as the phone moves. StreetView also displays photographic images of the actual street, if available.

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The push e-mail access is an especially nice feature because users will get their e-mail on the device without incurring charges on the data plan or hitting bandwidth limits.

It's not surprising that Google's tools are tightly integrated with the handset; after all, Google developed Android, the Linux operating system and software platform that the G1 runs on. The phone, manufactured by HTC, has a Linux kernel and the applications are written using the Java programming language. Android uses a different virtual machine and bytecode as the actual binary format and runtime environment.

The comparison to the iPhone is inevitable. Even though Andy Rubin, Google's senior director of mobile platforms, refused to say the word "iPhone" at the launch, it was clear that people were thinking about the other phone from the Cupertino, Calif.-based company.

Like the iPhone, it has a touch screen and the applications are presented as icons, but that is where the similarities end. Icons can be placed anywhere on the home screen to customize the user experience. The pull out menu (virtual drawer) and pull down applications look snappy and feel intuitive.

The keyboard, which slides out from underneath the screen like the Sidekick, is comfortable to use. The flat keys are like the ones on the HTC Wing (which should be no surprise since the G1 is also manufactured by HTC). There's also a trackball for anyone not wanting to use the touch screen. No multi-touch, though.

According to the specs, the G1 is 4.6 inches by 2.2 inches by 0.6 inches and weighs 5.6 ounces, making it slightly thicker and heavier than the iPhone. The display, at 3.2 inches, is nothing to sneeze at, but the G1 is not going to dethrone Apple's Steve Jobs as the king of design anytime soon.

The full HTML browser, referred to as "Chrome Lite" by Rubin because it shares code with Google Chrome, uses the WebKit engine and is optimized for mobile displays. The G1 will read Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents. It will also support Google Talk instant messaging, and AOL, Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger. The G1 also has support for copy/paste, a MMS program, and a higher-resolution camera.

We are still waiting on video.

The lack of video encoding, Exchange support, and stereo Bluetooth is disappointing. However, not being able to sync with Exchange, while a blow to early-adopters hoping to snap up the device for work, is not an unsurmountable barrier. Rubin noted that this was a great opportunity for a third-party developer. The release of SDK 1.0 means the development community can actively develop and distribute applications for Android without worrying about breaking binary compatibility.

The entire Android platform will be open-sourced by the end of the year. Once open-sourced, anybody can develop whole phones using Android, without having to go through Google.

Google also launched the Android Market, a third-party application repository similar to Apple's AppStore with a very key difference: any developer can distribute on the Market without requiring any fees, review, or approval from Google. This will be welcome news to developers, especially in light of recent announcements about Apple rejecting applications for the iPhone. Regardless of Apple's reasons, developing for the iPhone has become more expensive, because there is no way to gauge before getting to version 1.0 whether Apple will accept the software. By eliminating any barriers to the Market, developing for Android appears simpler.

There's no way to join the Market yet; details are expected soon.

For the past week, Test Center tried developing an Android application and found it fairly extensible. Mobile development is its own beast, but developers have a lot of control over remapping buttons and using hardware such as the GPS chip and WiFi. The SDK maps out data storage clearly, differentiating between what can be done with the SD card and the phone handset.

Google looked at several APIs and excluded it from SDK 1.0 because it wasn't a 100 percent polished. Instead of supporting ill-designed or buggy classes and objects forever, the company chose to remove it from this version altogether. For example, obex, data interchange over Bluetooth (like beaming contact information between phones), was removed from SDK 1.0.

Other things were added to SDK 1.0: a lot of the apache http stack that hadn't been in 0.9 were exposed in 1.0. These allow developers to work with HTTP requests and Java.

Generally, cell phone carriers aren't too enthusiastic about users having control over the applications on the phone. However, T-Mobile seems fairly accepting that users will be in charge. T-Mobile said the carrier will not lock down the operating system or update the software to break those user-created applications.

Test Center looks forward to reviewing the handset under full test conditions and will be keeping an eye on the SDK and Android Market in the days to come.