Google's Android: Now a Contender

Android has finally joined the heated battle for dominance of the smartphone market. The Google (GOOG)-designed software platform actually made its first appearance nearly a year ago, but the only Android handset, the T-Mobile G1, was so flawed that it did not offer a fair test. The new Android phones hitting the market this summer and fall give Google and its partners a chance to show their stuff against Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), BlackBerry (RIMM), Nokia (NOK), and Palm (PALM).

Even in this crowded field I believe Android has a better than decent shot. I've been trying the new myTouch 3G, which costs $200 with a two-year contract (voice and unlimited data from $65 a month). The handset, designed and built by Taiwan's HTC as the Magic and customized by T-Mobile USA, is a slightly stripped-down version of the HTC Hero, which has won rave reviews in Europe and Asia. HTC's Android monopoly will soon end as Motorola (MOT), Samsung, LG, and others bring out their own contenders.

The myTouch is a vast improvement over the G1. Some will miss having a physical keyboard, which was a slide-out option on that earlier handset, but personally I never found the G1's design practical. MyTouch makes do with a touchscreen keyboard, which is somewhat harder to use than the iPhone's—or maybe it just takes time to get used to the new design. To continue with the inevitable comparison: The myTouch is just a little narrower and thicker than the iPhone. Its 3.2-in. screen is slightly smaller but very good, though it suffers by not supporting two-finger gestures such as stretch and pinch to resize images. Battery life looks like it will get you through a busy day, and you can always pop in a spare.

These days, however, decent hardware is simply a starting point; the real competition among smartphones is in software. And this is where the Google connection could work to T-Mobile's advantage. The myTouch software has a distinctly Google-y flavor, featuring tight integration with Google's Gmail, Contacts, and Calendars. You also have Google search at your fingertips on every screen. It's possible to set up standard Internet mail accounts, too, but the limited support for the corporate-centric Microsoft Exchange feels like an afterthought. You can send and receive Exchange e-mail, but unlike the iPhone or Palm Pre, there's no direct access to Exchange's contact and calendar features. Instead, the myTouch requires you to use Google's Contact Sync and Calendar Sync to move data from Outlook to a Google server, and from there to the handset. It's a clumsy and incomplete solution.

T-Mobile provides a clever app called Sherpa, a guide to stores and services near your current location. Sherpa is supposed to learn your preferences over time so that its recommendations grow more useful as it realizes that you favor, say, Caribou Coffee (CBOU) over Starbucks (SBUX); unfortunately, I didn't have enough time with the phone to assess this feature.

In Apple's case, much of the iPhone's success has been due to the vast range of interesting apps available through the iTunes App Store. The Android Market is surprisingly well-stocked, considering the relatively small number of Android phones in use. But quantity is not matched by variety; many apps are variations on relatively few themes, a lot of them location-based. The Android Market, where most of the apps are free, lacks iPhone's plethora of wacky and sometimes wonderful offerings.

The Android camp faces plenty of hurdles. The iPhone has a huge head start and a mighty tailwind, and there will soon be fresh competition from the Palm Pre and a new version of Windows Mobile due this fall. But with support from Google and from handset makers desperate to come up with something that can mount a serious challenge to the iPhone, Android could become a major player.

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