Let’s forget, for a moment, the sublime irony at the end of the W years, the right-wing neocons’ parting gift: a socialistic, state-owned financial system. Too depressing.
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Instead, let’s take a first look at Android, the latest entry in the most dynamic segment of the high-tech industry, smartphones.  (The nice folks at T-Mobile will immediately object, it’s their phone not Google’s, but tell that to users, it’s Android, it’s the Google phone.)
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First, a bit of context to shed light on my perspective.
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I’ve had a long and sometimes “dynamic” relationship with what started as PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants). I have owned many Psions, Palm and Treo devices, Blackberries, Nokia and Windows Mobile devices, and two generations of iPhones.  Even a Newton.  The latter started as a special project led by my friend and business associate Steve Sakoman while we were still at Apple; we left the Newton behind when we exited the company to start  Be Inc., in 1990.  In 2001, we sold Be to Palm. Palm was split in two halves, PalmOne for hardware and PalmSource for software to be licensed to all comers.  After I became chairman of PalmSource, we eagerly sold the company to Access, a Japanese browser and now mobile Linux OS supplier.
Along the way, I saw four interesting products.  First, the Psion.  It had the best multitasking, never-crashing operating system, good user interface, good applications.  But the UK mother company never managed to get a foothold in the US.  The OS became part of what is now Symbian, first a consortium, now fully owned by Nokia and soon to be open-sourced.
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Then, there was Palm. Elegantly simple at first, its sharpest product was the Palm V.  Things became complicated when the founders left and started Handspring, only to be reacquired a few years later, having created the Treo smartphone in the meantime.  Somehow, Palm’s later efforts left customers less excited and the company, once the sector leader, is in limbo, hoping for newer sharper products in 2009.
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A perhaps little known fact: in the Summer of 1997, Steve Jobs called Eric Benhamou, 3Com’s CEO (the company owned Palm).  “Give me the Palm and come and join my Board of Directors.  Only Apple can make Palm a true consumer brand.” Nothing happened.  Apple’s foray into the product segment had to wait ten more years.
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RIM’s Blackberry started as a pager and became the best Enterprise smartphone. The Blackberry offers what is still the best OTA (Off The Air) synchronization with corporate Exchange e-mail, calendar and contacts, good ergonomics and a few well-polished applications.  With a GSM/Edge Blackberry, you can go to China, Greece or Russia and keep doing business in the Paris subway.  Some call it the Crackberry, blaming its addictive, always-on connection, other call it an electronic leash The Boss can yank at will.  I experienced my Blackberry as a pleasant business tool, one that allowed me to put “interstitial time” to good use, one that helped avoid the end-of-day chore of cleaning up my inbox when reaching home.
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And the iPhone. Not perfect but more than good enough to sell 6.9 million units last quarter, more than RIM, the maker of Blackberry, with 200 million applications downloaded from the iTunes App Store in about 100 days.  Some have described it as the iPod of phones, others say it is the first smartphone to really browse the Web, other still point to strange flaws such as the lack of cut-and-paste between applications, or the not infrequent application crashes (not the entire system, admittedly) due to insufficient RAM.  It is nonetheless what we call here a “game changer”, a product that resets standards and redefines expectations.
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And, on October 22nd, T-Mobile started delivering the much-awaited G1 smartphone, built by HTC, a Taiwanese phone maker, running the Google’s Android OS.  That day, at 1 pm, I walked into the T-Mobile store near my office, on Palo Alto’s University Avenue, a few blocks away from the local Apple Store.  No line, a couple of customers in the store, I left with my G1 in less than 15 minutes, transferred a T-Mobile SIM from my Blackberry and the phone worked immediately.  (I’m always surprised when things work “just like that”, I lived inside the sausage factory for too long…)
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I immediately went to the Android Market, Google’s site for Android applications and downloaded a few programs from the sixty or so available titles.  There is, for example, a Barcode scanner, it neatly read the code on the back of my Larousse Thesaurus, linked to the right description (for a book not available in the US) and pointed to online places to buy it.  A competing application, Compare Everywhere, was stymied but that failure isn’t necessarily meaningful.  I find more problems with the “mixed” ergonomics of the product: it features a touch screen, a slide-out keyboard and a little “mouse” ball.  The keyboard isn’t as convenient as the Blackberry’s, nor is the touch screen as clever (no pinching, no zooming) as the iPhone’s and there are inconsistencies in the way the UI uses the mouse, the touch screen and the keyboard.  This said, everything works, no unseemly crashes, the expected Google applications (Maps, Gmail) are there, and the browser does a better job rendering the Web than my latest purchase, a stylish Nokia E71, does.
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Amazon offers a good MP3 library, the purchase is Amazon-simple and downloads work. But… there is no earphone jack, you must use the supplied mini-USB earphone, unless you’re charging the phone that is, because there is only one connector.  The good news is you can use most mini-USB phone chargers such the Blackberry’s or Motorola’s.  For listening while you’re charging, there is always Bluetooth, or listening on the G1’s speaker as I do now.  Not great for Vivaldi.  Out of curiosity, I tried the same purchase and download on my iPhone.  Searching and purchasing isn’t very different, the same Itzhak Perlman record sounds better, not great, just serviceable, on the iPhone’s internal speakers.
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More problematic is the lack of a desktop client to backup your G1. I like to know my music, my photos will survive the loss of the phone, for example, or I can reset and restore my phone.  Still on problems, there is no syncing (Off The Air or with a cable) with Exchange.
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I didn’t mention the phone: it works. But the contacts automagically downloaded from my Google account, phone numbers included, do not connect with the phone.  In other words, unlike the Blackberry or the iPhone, you can’t dial from your address book.
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I’ll stop here, this is a feature-rich product and, in three days, I’ve only garnered a first impression, no warranties expressed or implied.
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For today, the G1 is just a first effort, one that very likely won’t make a dent in anyone’s sales. But there will be more.  Google will improve the software, there will be more applications, the Open Source code is released and many phone makers will provide their own Android-powered smartphones. Dan Hesse, the Sprint CEO I made light fun of in an earlier Monday Note, was quoted this week saying Android isn’t “good enough to put Sprint’s brand on it”.   It’s only a question of time before most phone makers and cellular carriers offer an Android model, 12 months or less.  Motorola, for example, is building a “social networking” Android phone.  This is precisely the beauty of the Android Open Source, it lets phone makers and carriers try different implementations, specialized models, vertical applications.
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I must also mention iSkoot,  a Skype application for Android.  This is Voice over IP (VoIP, over Internet Packets), it bypasses the carrier’s “meter”.  Now, iSkoot doesn’t work well on my G1 but nonetheless reminds us of a future where carriers have less and less control on which phones “run” on their networks and what these phones do.
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All this, of course, doesn’t come without problems: there will be incompatible Android variants resulting in applications not working everywhere.  But, for many users, this will be a small price to pay for a rich, diversified market of all kinds of smartphones at all kind of prices.  And, after a while, the best ones at each price point will survive and coalesce around key applications, fun for some, work for others.  In the meantime, Google will enjoy having zillions of smartphones bring traffic to the Mother of All Search (and Advertising) Engines.  Google spent very little money to gain a crucial position in the coming wave of smartphones and their Cloud Computing applications.
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Last Spring, Microsoft was still “seeing” a 40% market share for Windows Mobile in 2012. This coming week, Tuesday I’m told, Microsoft will discuss their updated views of the smartphone market.  I wonder: will MS adopt a Google-like strategy, free Windows Mobile with their Live-brand Cloud applications?  Or will they discuss what they’ll do with their Danger acquisition?  (The erstwhile maker of T-Mobile’s Sidekick, a device that looks more than a little bit like the G1, Danger’s former CEO now heads Google’s Android effort…)
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As for Apple, no real mystery: more devices, more price points, same formula: delivering a better consumer experience by honing every layer: hardware, system software, media, applications and retail experience.  Critics say Apple is making the same old mistake of their early PC days: not licensing their OS platform. Microsoft did, becoming the emperor of the PC as a result.  Apple doesn’t respond directly and lets analysts dissect its resurgence in the PC market, its success with the iPod and with the iPhone, its highly disciplined distribution network.  Different times, different strategies.
Lastly, I don’t think RIM will take any of this, the iPhone or Android, lying down.  New Blackberry models, up and down the price range will sharpen its product line.
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The big battles for the smartphone market have barely begun, they will be much more interesting than the ones in the now aging PC field.  The smartphone is, after all, the really personal computer.  –JLG
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See Jean-Louis Gassée’s previous columns on smartphones here.
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