Today’s debut of the T-Mobile G1 is the first public appearance of an almost fully-baked consumer "Googlephone" — a phone based on Google’s Android operating system.
There’s just one problem: There is no Googlephone. And that’s something Google must fix, and fast, if it wants its mobile operating system to succeed.
Granted, Google’s Android operating system has a lot going for it. It’s supported by a developer-friendly company, it’s Java-based, and it’s open-source.
However, it’s going to need a lot more than that if it’s going to succeed as a smartphone platform. And by "succeed," I mean "Beat the iPhone."
The iPhone has seen tremendous success in the market thanks to Apple’s fanatic dedication to good user experience, its willingness (and ability) to strong-arm its carrier partners, and Apple’s easy-to-use App Store, which gives developers instant access to millions of iPhone and iPod Touch users worldwide. Some developers have even used the platform to make serious money already, to the tune of $250,000 in just a couple months.
But Apple keeps tight reins on its developers. It has a slow and seemingly arbitrary process for vetting App Store software, it chains down developers with a restrictive NDA, and it charges $99 just to get access to the developer’s kit.
It’s a sure bet that many developers, given the opportunity, would flock to a less restrictive environment. And with dozens of carriers and many handset manufacturers building Android-based phones, it looks like there might be a large market of Android phone users to sell to.
There’s just one problem: The carriers. A big part of the iPhone’s success is thanks to Apple’s clout, which enabled it, in effect, to tell AT&T to sit down and shut up about this or that feature requirement. Once other carriers saw the iPhone’s success in the U.S., they wanted in on that action, so Apple was able to dictate terms globally, just as it had a year before in the U.S.
That’s a striking difference from the way carriers and phone manufacturers usually relate to each other. Carriers typically retain fanatic control over every aspect of the customer, from the menus on the phone to the applications that customers are permitted to download. Carrier feature requirements dictate the laundry-list of useless gewgaws that most phones sport (does anyone ever actually use the "calendar" app on a Nokia or Motorola phone?). And it’s that dysfunctional relationship that means most phones are so horrible to use: They’re doomed from the start by companies that care more about their own requirements than those of their customers.
That’s why I predict that Android will soon have as many different flavors as there are carriers. Some carriers will customize it so that their phones can’t install any applications other than the ones they authorize. Some will modify the operating system to work with one of their custom services or another. Some will no doubt cripple it, removing features that they consider threatening to their own businesses (like the ability to run VoIP apps).