Technology

The Google Android Phone's Big Premiere


T-Mobile unveils its HTC-built G1, the first mobile phone based on software from the Google-led Open Handset Alliance

In the most anticipated mobile-phone launch since the release of Apple's iPhone, the T-Mobile G1 was unveiled Sept. 23.

Like the iPhone, unveiled in June 2007, the G1 is the brainchild of one of tech's most innovative companies; it's the first phone boasting the Android software created by a Google (GOOG)-led consortium. Like Apple's music-playing handset, the G1 features a full Web browser and connects to the Internet with Wi-Fi technology. G1 similarly boasts a large touchscreen and lets users download games and tools from an online bazaar akin to the Apple App Store.

That's about where the similarities end. The G1 is to follow a different path from the Apple (AAPL) iPhone in some crucial ways, notably volume growth. G1 is expected to do well, though it may not replicate the iPhone's early successes.

Fewer T-Mobile Subscribers

Analysts predict that manufacturer HTC will sell 200,000 to 400,000 units this year, once the device becomes available on Oct. 22 in select markets. The device will sell for $179 with a two-year contract. At the high end of that estimate, the first Android device would gain almost 4% of the U.S. smartphone market in the fourth quarter, expected by wireless researcher Strategy Analytics to total 10.5 million. Tina Teng, an analyst at research firm iSuppli, believes Android-based devices will sell 2 million to 3 million units globally in 2009.

Still, the original iPhone sold 1 million units in its first 1 months on the market—and that was during what is usually a slow sales season, compared with end-of-year holidays. Apple expects to sell 10 million units of the next-generation device, the iPhone 3G, this year.

Sales expectations are lower for Android partly because G1 will be carried by T-Mobile USA, which has 30 million subscribers, compared with Apple's iPhone partner, AT&T (T), which has more than 70 million.

Another strike against Android is that T-Mobile's high-speed wireless network isn't as extensive as AT&T's. "Consumers still choose the carrier first," says Ross Rubin, an analyst at consumer electronics research firm NPD Group. "For early adopters, they'd need to contend with T-Mobile's embryonic 3G network for at least a few months," Rubin says. What's more, G1 buyers will likely have to buy an additional calling plan to use G1's built-in Wi-Fi more extensively; iPhone users can freely use their device's Wi-Fi capability. T-Mobile will offer a limited data plan for $25 a month and unlimited Web access and messaging for $35 a month.

Some analysts who have seen versions of G1 also say it's not quite as stylish as the comparable Apple device. "It does not feel as luxurious as the iPhone," says Moe Tanabian, senior principal at IBB Consulting who has seen a late prototype of the device. The device is a cross between the iPhone and a Sidekick, an earlier T-Mobile phone that also boasts Web access and was a favorite of hip cell-phone users. Andy Rubin, who heads Google's Android effort, helped develop the Sidekick.

Wide-Open App Marketplace

Google and other Android supporters surely will try to prove the pessimists wrong. Google, for one, is expected to launch an extensive marketing campaign for the device. "Google is the defining Web 2.0 company for online search," Ambrosio says. T-Mobile is also throwing its marketing muscle behind the G1—though its budget is typically nowhere near as big as that of larger rivals. "It will be the biggest marketing campaign we ever launched for a mobile device," Cole Brodman, T-Mobile's chief information and innovation officer, said at the unveiling, attended by Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

G1 sales will also benefit from the flexibility of the Android Marketplace online app store. Unlike Apple's iTunes App Store (BusinessWeek.com, 9/5/08), Google's marketplace won't vet developers. Google will let anyone post applications to its store, where features will be rated in a YouTube-like manner. The openness of the Android software also can make it easier for developers to create associated tools more quickly.

The Android-based handset also boasts a slide-out full Qwerty keyboard, which the iPhone lacks. The device, which will feature a capable music player, that allows for easy music downloads from Amazon (AMZN), is also expected to come in three colors: black, white, and brown. And as expected it offers plenty of tight integration with a wide range of Google services, including search, mapping, and address book tools. "If T-Mobile launches a bugs-free, easy-to-use phone, then its brand equity will increase," says Tanabian, who has consulted for T-Mobile.

The Android Army Is Coming

Apple's iPhone isn't expected to be the main competitor for G1. The Android-based phone may erode sales of the Sidekick, phones that run Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Mobile software, and smartphones made by Motorola (MOT) and Research In Motion (RIMM), maker of the BlackBerry. RIM "might lose some share by virtue of being the market leader" in the U.S., Rubin says. T-Mobile's parent, Deutsche Telekom (DT), will introduce the phone in the U.K. on Oct. 22 and elsewhere in Europe in the first quarter of 2009.

G1 stands to become a more formidable competitor as it's picked up by other manufacturers as well. Motorola, LG and Samsung are expected to launch Android models worldwide in 2009. And their Android-based phones may look vastly different from each other and the G1. Europeans may get a slider with a 12-key keyboard that they favor. Japan may get a phone with built-in mobile TV. There could be special phones for doctors or for lawyers.

Big cell-phone carriers also will help determine the success of coming Android phones. "Android has the potential to be much bigger than Apple because they can have many more manufacturers making its products," says Chris Ambrosio, an analyst with consultancy Strategy Analytics.


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