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Google's Android was last year's "new thing", and while Palm's webOS takes that place this year, Android Central brings us their second generation hardware with the likes of the HTC Hero, and the 2.0 version of its OS with the Motorola Droid. That Google enjoys massive tech-geek cachet while at the same time maturing into two such different (potentially fractured?) sets of hardware and software, while being the cloud company and yet not enjoying the most cloud-centric OS in the 2009 Smartphone Round Robin are what make it potentially the most interesting platform this year.

To help me figure it all out, Casey Chan went over the finer points for me and the Android Central Forum members provided tons of great feedback. Thanks to all the 'droidekas!

(And just a reminder, every day you post on my Android Central thread, or any of the official Round Robin threads, is another day you're entered to win one of six (6!) new smartphones!)

Okay, time to get Androidy with it... after the break!

Android: Take Two

First, here's the Droid and Hero tour I got, courtesy of Casey.


[YouTube Video link]

And here are the rest of the contextual links:

iPhone Rene and Android Casey

Hardware Design

Android's two entries in the 2009 Smartphone Round Robin couldn't be any more different. One is made my Motorola, the other by HTC. One runs on Verizon, the other on Sprint (or also on Verizon under the name Droid Eris -- more on that later). One is vanilla Android 2.0, the other is HTC's Sense UI. One is an HD slider, the other an SD slab. One's design harkens to the hard edges of the Millennium Falcon (if MC Hammer had repainted it), and the other the softer lines of the princess (if that irony isn't too rich).

Droid

More specifically, the Droid is a well built slider, impossibly thin -- iPhone thin -- for a device with that type of keyboard. However, that type of keyboard is woefully inadequate on the Droid. It's so flat and so lacking in separation, it really feels like little more than the stick-on it is. If having a better keyboard would have meant having a thicker Droid, I would have been fine with that. Oh, and that 5-way? Yeah, it's a 5-way. It confused all of us. It looks like the chip on our new credit cards, feels like it should be a a touch pad, but it seems to be a 5-way. I'm still not sure though. All I know is that it shoves an already poor keyboard all the way to the even-less functional left.

Again, the irony of mocking Apple as having form over function should not be lost. Other than that -- and it's a big "that" for the hardware keyboard set -- the build quality here is top notch. (Okay, maybe the camera is disappointing given its specs, but like others I hold hope for a software fix).

The screen is fantastic, however. Big and bright and 16:9, it's very much what the next generation of smartphones should be.

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Hero

The Hero is just as well built. Depending on what version you get, it can be chinned or chinless, but the basic clean curves and clear screen is the same. It isn't the monster the Droid is -- it doesn't have the huge keyboard or screen or camera, but that's the point. Not everyone wants a monster, and for those who want more of (I'll say it!) an iPhone form-factor, the Hero might just be the better Android hardware.

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Software Experience

Where to start? Android is now on version 1.5. Or 1.6. Or 2.0. Or maybe 2.1 in beta. And its UI is the Google Experience. Or HTC Sense UI. Or MotoBlur. Or some other stuff like Samsung or Sony are spinning. Is that a software experience or software schism? More on that later.

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Droid/with Google Software

The Motorola Droid runs a Google version of Android 2.0. Compared to previous "with Google" devices, it's good if not great, powerful if not polished. Lightyears ahead of the G1 I tried last year (where it would ask for input when none was possible), but it's still not the iPhone US. It's still inconsistent, and for whatever reason, even though Android 2.0 supports multi-touch, the Google apps on the Droid don't. (And yes that makes a difference on a capacitive device).

If you're heavily invested in Google services (like I am, and like most geeks are), you won't find a better shipping device that supports those services. From a real, honest-to-threads-and-labels Gmail app, to free Google Maps Navigation in the US, if you've decided Google's convenience is worth more than your privacy (and it's a very convenient convenience, which is why most of us have), then deciding Google's own platform best leverages that isn't a hard second step.

As to the rest of the OS, it's pretty much what we saw last year. It's got multitasking but not as well visually represented as Palm's webOS. It's got far better notifications than the iPhone, even if again they may not be as well handled by the UI as webOS. It's also got apps. Not as many as the iPhone, of course, but building quickly and given the open nature of the Android Market, while the apps may not be as many or as polished as the iPhone, they have apps Apple won't even let in the store. (Not coincidentally Google's own Latitude and Voice.

Hero Sense UI

Unlike the Google experience on the Droid, HTC has wrapped up the Hero in Sense UI, an evolution of the TouchFlo UI they previously lacquered on top of Windows Mobile (and will be using going forward on that platform as well).

It's widgety and beautiful, and works much better on the Hero's capacitive screen than its predecessor did on the Touch Pro in last year's Round Robin. The weather animation is still something I unabashedly hope Apple somehow integrates into the iPhone OS. It's still slightly less intuitive and consistent to me than the iPhone UI -- but the eye candy alone balances the scales.

The tradeoff -- and there's always a tradeoff -- is that it takes time for HTC to spin their Sense UI on top of Android updates, so while "with Google" devices might go to 2.0 sooner, HTC might only get a Sense UI version out later.

And This is Where it Gets Interesting

To recap: Google offers Android on a liberal, open-source license. Motorola makes MotoBlur for their Android devices, but not for the Droid which uses the Google experience. Actually, Verizon owns the Droid trademark and they also offer a Droid Eris, but that's made by HTC and is otherwise called the Hero and runs Sense UI. HTC also made the G1 and myTouch which don't run Sense UI. Oh, and the Droid off Verizon will be called the Milestone.

Apple has the iPhone.

Brand-aid

Contrast those two paragraphs. As a consumer, if you want an iPhone you get an iPhone. As a consumer, I'm not even sure if you know what an Android device is. I've seen Droid commercials here in Canada, but that device won't exist in Canada. I go to my local carrier and try to buy one and get what... confused? And if HTC runs Sense UI on top of Android and Windows Mobile, do I buy an HTC device and not even notice what's running underneath? Or do I just get a Verizon device like Droid or Eris and never know they're Android or are the Milestone and Hero?

What I'm getting to there is branding. Apple offers a single, consistent brand. Google's Android is sundered amid who knows how many brands and while that doesn't hurt individual devices, could it hurt the platform as a whole? (We'll be covering Windows Phone next week, which Micrsoft is now calling Windows Phone because it seems many people who had Windows Mobile devices had no idea what platform they actually had -- does that answer the question? We'll see.)

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Frak-ture

So the Droid outside Verizon will be the Milestone. And the G1/myTouch off T-Mobile are the Magic/Dream, and on my carrier they might be stuck on Android 1.5 forever, because Google only updates "with Google" devices and HTC may only be updating Sense UI devices, and Rogers certainly doesn't seem to care. These are devices sold in 2009.

To contrast again, even an iPhone 2G from 2007 is currently running the latest iPhone 3.1.2 software.

I'm tempted to say for an average consumer it won't matter because they won't even be aware of updates. They'll buy the device they want and when and if it doesn't update (if they even know it didn't update) they'll just buy the next device. But I don't think many average consumers buy Android devices yet (possibly with the exception of the much-hyped Droid on Verizon, who had a paucity of smartphone selection previous to its release).

In general, I think more savvy, geeky users seek out Android, and seek it out specifically, and they're exactly the type of user who will and should care.

And not just because they may not get the latest Android OS, but because the breadth of Android platforms out there, from 1.5 to beta 2.1 makes a huge target for developers, and not in the good sense of the term. With the iPhone (and iPod touch) there are 50+ million users most of whom updated to 3.x at some point when they plugged into iTunes (and we won't get into Google still lacking an offline sync/backup/media management tool like iTunes). So the choice for developers is targeting tens of millions of almost identical Apple devices, or nearly a dozen Google phones on 4 different versions of the OS, running one of 3 different UI layers, with at least two different screen resolutions and an odd assortment of input methods (touch only, touch and keyboard, touch and keyboard and trackball/trackpad/etc.)

To put that in some form of end-user perspective, when I first got the G1 last year I went to Android Market and downloaded a Snake game and was told to "push up to start", and it took forever for me to figure out what "up" they meant. (The screen, the keyboard, the trackball?)

When one of our writers got the Droid, she tweeted exactly the same problem.

It's hard enough to make a truly spectacular app. It's harder still to make it when you can't count on consistent hardware specs or software implementations. Users may not know or notice this, but they feel the lack of great user experience it can lead to.

(Apple needs to pay attention to at least part of this as well if they intend to compete in screen resolution this year).

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That Android Thing

Let's be clear -- as much as Apple runs iTunes on low-margins to promote the sale of iPods (including the iPhone), Google gives away web services to promote the attraction of our eyeballs to their advertising. They're just as happy if those eyeballs are looking at Google services on an Apple or Microsoft or Rim or Palm or whatever platform, but if Microsoft or Apple (for example) ever locked Google out to promote their own services (like Bing or MobileMe), Google would have a problem. (Just look at how Facebook locks out Google for an example).

Enter Android. By having their own platform on the market, Google knows there's one place from which they can never be locked out. And more than that, they can use it as a lever to promote the technologies that best serve Google services -- things that make the web, and hence WebApps run faster and more reliably. That's good for everybody, but make no mistake -- Google does it because it's good for Google first and foremost.

I state all this not because that makes Google any different from any other for-profit company -- or platform in the Round Robin -- but because it makes it the same, and for some reason the technorati often likes to assume Google is different. No company is. I'm not sure any company can realistically afford to be.

Which brings us back to Android. Google's current Mobile OS is a conundrum. It's a traditional platform OS from the company that's usually anything but. I still half-suspect Android was acquired solely for the reason stated above -- to guarantee Google couldn't be locked out of the mobile space. Then when Palm released webOS, Google smacked their head and Chrome OS was born. That the most traditional of all smartphone companies beat the new kid, Google to the web-ification of mobile is amazing, and it raises some interesting questions and concerns about the Android platform.

Apple made the iPhone because Steve Jobs wanted an iPhone. Yeah they figured they could sell 50 million of them, but primarily Jobs is a diva who wanted to dent the universe one more time. I'm guessing RIM makes BlackBerrys because they're just as passionate about that pushy little platform. Elevation Partners may be sinking money into Palm in a bet to get a part of the huge mobile pot of the future, but if Rubinstein hadn't have wanted it he could have stayed retired on his giant pile of Apple-bucks and let Palm churn out the Treo 900. And Microsoft... well I don't really get the feeling Ballmer cares about Windows Mobile any further than he thinks Microsoft needs that screen in its collection, and I think that's part of their core problem (but we'll get to that next week).

Google has much the same problem as Microsoft -- the people at the top don't seem to be, and really don't need to be, as passionate about their platform, and that shows. Now I'm not saying Andy Rubin, who founded Android isn't passionate, and I'm sure many of the Googlers are deeply passionate about Android, but at the top Android doesn't exist because Eric or Sergey or Larry just had to have that phone. It exists, like I said, so that Google can't get shut off from mobile eyeballs by a competitor.

And that's what the Android thing feels like to me. Not the product Google wants themselves (that might be Chrome OS), but a strategic move they decided to make.

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Conclusion

Yes, Android offers killer Google services integration. If Google is your life, Android is clearly the OS for you. If you don't use Google, I'm not sure there's any reason to get Android over another device. Don't get me wrong, it's good at everything, but unlike the other devices, it's not killer at any of them.

It doesn't have the UI or handle media as well as the iPhone, it's not the communications monster BlackBerry is, it's not full-on Linux like Nokia's Maemo, and it doesn't make the web manifest, nor handle multitasking or notifications as elegantly as Palm's webOS.

If you're on Verizon or T-Mobile or Sprint and want something iPhone-like. If you can't stand Apple's dictatorial control over the iPhone app ecosystem. If you want a hardware option other than the full-screen slab. If there's some dealbreaker for you about the iPhone then Android is a good alternative.

Which is crazy when you think Google makes this OS. They're the megacorp of the 21st century. They're a verb. They have more money and talent and reach than almost any other company. They make Android... but I think the problem is they don't champion it. Again, their ultimate C-level goal isn't to make the best smartphone on the planet, they're goal is to get the most eyeballs on the planet, and that means making great stuff for every platform.

Now it's quite possible that Google will keep iterating and by this time next year it could be head and shoulders above everyone else. It could be the "iPhone killer", swarming over Apple's device with a hive of Android-powered alternatives, some of which are clearly better in many or most ways. Anything is possible when it comes to Google. (Though people used to say that about Microsoft as well, but again we'll visit that next week).

In the end, this is a very different review than I expected to write, and I think that's because of how much I expected from Google this year. Arguably Android has as much if not more potential than any other platform, yet now in year two it still doesn't seem to fully realize it. It doesn't seem as ground-breaking as it should. Just look at how far Palm has come with webOS out of almost nowhere. Google's had longer than that with Android and far more resources than Palm. That makes no sense to me, except that it's exactly how Google has positioned it. For now.

Next year Google might just announce free cell service for everyone in the US. Then it's game over.