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10.16.08

Where Google Crushes the iPhone

Google's new phone can get you a cab and size up an earthquake. But can it beat the iPhone?

I’ve had the chance to kick the tires on the so-called Google phone—which comes out next week—and here’s my take: Gadget geeks are gonna love it, but hipsters should stick with their iPhones.

The Google phone—officially known as the T-Mobile G1, and built by HTC—is Google’s attempt to extend its Web supremacy to the mobile sphere, by taking on smartphone incumbents like Apple, RIM and Microsoft.

And it’s the first new phone to have a decent shot. For starters, the T-Mobile G1 addresses some common gripes with the iPhone by including a physical keyboard with actual keys, and a removable battery. The phone doesn't officially hit stores until Oct. 22, but it is now starting to pop up on sites like Craigslist and in the back rooms of some retail outlets.

The best thing about the Google phone isn’t what’s different than the iPhone—it’s what’s similar. Apple has generated tremendous buzz for its rich ecosystem of third party apps, including Loopt, which shows you the current location of your friends on a map, and UrbanSpoon, with lets you find nearby restaurant by shaking the phone.

When I test drove the Google phone, I found it has great applications available through Google’s new Android marketplace that essentially match the iPhone's as far as ingenuity and innovation are concerned. One called cab4me can find you a cab no matter where you are. Another cool (but admittedly less practical) application called Pocket Seismograph uses the phone's accelerometer to measure the impact of earthquakes.

But while Apple keeps tight control over any apps that are granted a listing in the App Store, the Android Marketplace takes a radically different approach. The Marketplace is completely open, which means developers can create new programs for the phone without vetting by Google or T-Mobile.

The phone's entire operating system is based on open standards, as well. Google contends that open standards will encourage developers to create innovative new software for the phone in an industry where most of its competitors, including the iPhone, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile, rely on software that is closed and proprietary. Closed systems can prevent developers from tinkering with the underlying code—which is why the phone could ultimately win over the tech geek crowd.

Aesthetes and audiophiles, however, are unlikely to toss out their iPhone in favor of the thicker and bulkier G1. While the G1 features some striking graphics and animations, the iPhone still takes the prize for the most polished user interface—and its music player is far superior. And G1 owners, leave that copy of Citizen Kane at home: the first Google phone can't play videos, other than YouTube clips. Another concern: many of the Android Marketplace's most innovative apps were spurred by the disbursement of $10 million in awards from a Google developer contest, so it's unclear whether the ingenuity will continue.

But the Google phone is problematic for Apple if the company continues to run its App Store in the manner that it does today. The company's closed approach has ensured a minimum level of quality but has also drawn charges that Apple has arbitrarily rejected software from its store; there are numerous examples but the most visible have been Podcaster and MailWrangler, two apps that Apple rejected because it viewed them as competing with its own iTunes and Mail software, respectively.

"Writing software is a serious investment of time and energy," Fraser Speirs, a developer of iPhone apps, wrote on his blog last month. "Apple’s current practice of rejecting certain applications at the final hurdle—submission to the App Store—is disastrous for investor confidence. Developers are investing time and resources in the App Store marketplace and, if developers aren’t confident, they won’t invest in it."

The real danger for Apple is that these peeved developers will see the Android Marketplace as a more stable environment to create new apps, and flock there instead.