Why Android Will Soon Kick AssS

When the T-Mobile G1 was shown off in NYC last week, it didn't have the gusto of a Stevenote. There was no "boom!"—no "one more thing!" And as a result, many (including us) felt a bit underwhelmed, and were quick to interpret the device's inconsistent GUI as an indicator that the lack of attention to detail would doom it.

But allow me to remind all of those getting their naysay on this early in the game that we've seen only a fraction of what the G1 can and will be able to do with the open-source Android OS. And when Google's mobile machine is finally humming at full power—with an army of coders cranking out add-ons for the Market, today's skeptics—including some of us—are going to have to eat crow. It's not about pretty icons, Apple fanboys, and its not about business use, Windows Mobile Nerds: its about giving people the true tools to build whatever they want without lame App Store limitations and OS handcuffs. It's about giving phone makers shackled to Symbian and Microsoft's phone OS the chance to build with something different and better and free. And who's going to complain about that?

Back to Apple for a minute: The iPhone has brainwashed us into thinking everything that's revolutionary and exciting in the gadget world needs to be a sex object. Now, I enjoy an Apple hardware brainfuck as much as the next, but a phone is never a better phone because of hardware alone, and Google knows this too. And it will be entering the market at a time when iPhone’s software strategy is starting to show wobbly legs. If you’ve been reading our weekly app roundups, you’ve probably noticed the story shifting away from clever developers doing cool things no one previously thought possible to more about what Apple won't let iPhone developers and users do with their phones. As a result, we’ve seen tons of variety, but not a lot of depth. There are a ton of clever calculator apps of various kinds. There are a ton of games, a ton of flashlights. But in the groundbreaking and unexpected functionality department, all anyone can hear lately is crickets. And Apple's lawyers trying to get the crickets to sign an NDA.

No one else makes a legitimate phone OS with all this support that can be tweaked down to the very roots. For one thing, I'm excited to be able to download an entirely different version of all of Android’s core applications if I don't like the default 1.0 versions—and that’s every app, everything from the dialer to the contacts manager—something that's technically possible in WinMo but often comes off more as an awkward re-skinning and not a top-down integration. I'm excited to add system-level features to my phone for free, and not just apps that are only allowed to bounce around on the surface. These are the benefits that an open platform will allow developers to provide to Android users, and the benefits that Google hopes all mobile phone customers will come to expect from their phones as a result.

This is all banking on the platform being successful, of course, which is obviously up in the air this early on. But would Google mount such a huge undertaking as Android if they were only expecting to be a different flavor of Windows Mobile? That seems hard to believe.

Everyone who gave the G1 a quick run-through last week was in reality testing a product still in beta. Because as we’ve said repeatedly, Android is now in the hands of its developers (from within Google itself as well as third-parties), who will have unprecedented access to all parts of a mobile phone and a centralized distribution network (Android Market) in order to do things that have only been teased until now. It’s all banking on the Market, and its ability to attract grade-A content that will provide even novice cellphone users with many opportunities to greatly customize their phones.

To do this Android will need one thing: critical mass, on both the developer and consumer side, in that order—with each reinforcing the other. Its pre-release may be sold-out, but on October 22 there probably won't be campers and local news crews stretched for miles outside of the T-Mobile store. That's because Google knows who they need to go after first—the developers. The geek community. It wasn't a coincidence that at launch, Sergey Brin came on stage on Rollerblades bragging about his accelerometer phone-toss app that he wrote himself. This first release is all about getting developers into Android, and giving them a similar open dev environment that Larry and Sergey will be the first to tell you they couldn't have built Google without. The iPhone didn't get that until version 2.0, many firmware releases later—and it's still not nearly as open as Android will be. (The iPhone also couldn't reliably hold a call without dropping for many until version 2.1, but that's besides the point.)

Open source has failed many times before, critics will say. Here's why Android will not fail in this regard: governance. Google told us that priority number one right now with Android is setting the standards by which the project will operate—what makes a device Android 1.0 compatible, how often full system upgrades will be offered, and the like. One thing that's fairly evident, though, is that an upgrade path will have to be fairly regimented (closer to Ubuntu’s strict twice-yearly schedule, rather than the “release whenever we feel like it” model found in other smaller projects) in order to keep all of the members of the huge Open Handset Alliance all on the same page. There will be no folks still waiting for their carrier to release Windows Mobile 6.1, years after it was made available. Android will not and cannot operate like this—to keep the Market thriving, all of the developers and users will need to be on the same (regular) release schedule. So, while they're taking care of the problems of being open source, they're also taking care of the same problems that a paid platform like Windows Mobile has.

Google has their eyes on the long haul with Android. Which is why reactions to a somewhat scattered UI in the very first implementation is not something they're worried about too much. This is a platform about further reducing the mobile carriers to raw pipes of data, and giving full control to the consumer. It’s about creating a critical-mass open-source ecosystem. And even if they fail to sell a ton of handsets, they've already put pressure on all the carriers and phone makers by the fact that they've created a free alternative that does not have to win to impact the players in this industry.

Of course, all of these arguments can be debated, but there's one thing that no no one can argue with: You don't take Google lightly.