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article imageHands on with the Canadian Google Android Phone Special

By Shaun Conlin     May 29, 2009 in Technology
Rogers is launching Canada's first Google Android phones by HTC on June 2. Shaun Conlin spent some hands-on time with two new devices running the search engine giant's upstart OS and saw stars. Or a map of them, anyway.
"No way!" and "that is so cool!" were the two refrains uttered by the handful of tech journalists upon first meeting HTC's two Google Android phones, set for their Canadian debut on June 2 (when pricing will also be revealed but, barring door-crasher specials, is expected to be "competitive").
It wasn't the actual phones we were gushing over, rather the Sky Map app the sales reps from Rogers and HTC shrewdly chose to open the Calgarian sneak peak.
Utilizing the in-built compass, GPS and accelerometers of the HTC Dream or HTC Magic - the actual names of these so-called "Google Android" phones - the Sky Map application (app) will display a 320 x 480 snap of stars in the sky the back of the phone happens to be facing. Or a 480 x 320 real-time representation of said stars if when held sideways, of course.
Point it at the eastern horizon and there's the thousand points of light - complete with connect-the-dot constellations all mapped out and mystical - that you would see were it not for all that pesky daylight.
Hoist the phone overhead and the map pans up to that particular would-be view. Point it at your feet and there's the stars the other side of the world is looking at right now. May be gimmicky, maybe frivolous, but undeniably cool. Or "so cool!", as mentioned.
And that's the thing with these superphones; both are "merely" state-of-the-art smartphones looking to compete in a burgeoning but wildly contested personal-digital-do-all space; both need a shtick if they're going to stick. That shtick is Android.
Not that they need more power, features, functions or bubblegum hues to set themselves apart. Well, wouldn't hurt, but both are pretty darn robust and purpose-laden just the way they are. Piano Black and iPoddy White, meanwhile, are the only bubblegum tints slated for offer.
First off, the only key difference between the HTC Dream and the HTC Magic is a slide-out QWERTY keyboard (plus a few navigational aesthetics). The Magic does not have one (there's a virtual keyboard option in the touchscreen instead) while the Dream does (it's an ounce heavier, a tenth of an inch thicker for it, and sports a slightly lesser battery, too).
Otherwise, the expected gambit of tech specs are common to both. To wit: 528 Qualcomm processor; 256 MB of RAM; 192 MB onboard memory, expandable via micro SD; backlit touchscreen; trackball navigation, 3G UMTS, GSM, Quadband (roaming) technologies; ActiveSync, POP3/IMAP email and Gmail (naturally); rechargeable power for 400+ minutes of talktime, 300 - 400+ hours of standby; 3.2 megapixel camera; MPEG4 camcorder (capture or stream); Wi-fi, Bluetooth, GPS, compass, and a bag of chips.
Okay, no chips, but these are specs as technically impressive as they are totally predictable in a device that hopes to compete with Apple's iStuff, RIM's Crackberry, and Palm's Treosmarty... uh, smartphony. You know.
Specs on a spec sheet are one thing, of course; the real world ain't "optimal." The impressive talk and standby times only apply if Dream/Magic is used as a phone only. Use the internet/GPS/data functions - which is kind of the point of owning such a thing in the first place - and we're talking just a few hours of uptime, not 400+.
Funny, but the battery of the demo unit in my hands upped and died about halfway through the luncheon there in the swank Sheraton Suites Calgary Eau Claire. Explained away as "in use all morning" in a sales training seminar, it was still a bit of an embarrassing chuckler.
Not that you'd expect a smartphone of any kind to run full throttle for a day straight. Just sayin'. But while the units may not be exceptional, it can be safely said that both are up to snuff with the competitive company they keep.
Of course, what Dream and Magic have that the others don't is an open-source operating system supplied by a global domination-minded Google.
And what's key about that is not so much the Google brand - that too - but the "open source" bit. Like Linux, an open-source OS is exactly that, open to development and repurposing for anyone with an inkling. Needless to say, technical savvy and a few other resources help.
But in principle, anybody and everybody are free to make an Android phone. Or anybody is allowed to, at least, no licensing fees or royalties involved.
Taiwan-based HTC is a company with the wherewithal, the resources and the market presence to do it, and is the only one doing it in Canada (at the moment). No stranger to the mobile space, HTC has a number of successful PDAs and smartphones employing the Microsoft Mobile platform available on each of the major Canadian carriers as OEM devices, some Motorola and Palm phones, plus a lot of T-Mobile stuff in the States and other phones with other carriers around the world.
Rogers Communications, meanwhile, has the nationwide capacity and infrastructure to support the things, not to mention a freshly expanded 3G 7.2 HSPA, reportedly capable of speeds twice that of the competition.
Moreover, the open-source platform allows anyone, home-based coder, upstart developer or established software publisher inclusively, to develop the "apps" so crucial to distinguishing one device/platform from the next.
Since Android has been around in other markets for a while now, Canadian adopters can expect a library of more than 3500 Android apps already available, with new ones added almost daily. Importantly, though there are surely hundreds of throwaways and useless little programs in the Android Market, the large majority of them have the decency to be free, not merely cheap and disposable at 99 cents or whatever. Flat out free.
The open-source community is big on free. It's also big on collaborative, supportive development by a diverse, global pool of programmers - a veritable "cradle of innovation" or "global nerd force" churning out handy, fun and/or bizarre creations just for the sake of "sticking it to The Man" if not The Man's closed business model of profit for the few by micro-transactions by the billions.
As a value proposition, it's sell-a-guy-a-meal vs. give-a-guy-a-free-farm and see what happens.
And what happens is things like the so-cool Sky Map, or the Light Saber app that employs the devices' accelerometers to replicate the patented electric hum and oscillating whir should you happen to wield your Android like a Jedi.
There's a Tip Calculator app, an old school compass, ringtone creators, City Audioguides ("turning streets into museums"), TwitterDroid and dozens of similar social networking integrations. Free, free, and free.
Plus, there's more games than you can shake a Light Saber at - Pac Man is Android's most popular game (go figure), though there are hundreds of original innovations as well, including Parallel Kingdom, a role-playing game (RPG) which incorporates the real world and real people via GPS.
The otherwise daunting glut of Android apps is made digestible in a relatively user-friendly categorized menu, further augmented with ranking systems based on popularity and user ratings.
What's more, Dream and Magic are pre-loaded with the essentials. This includes the Android Market interface, naturally, plus a Browser, Google Search, Contacts, Gmail, Google Talk, Google Maps (in all its multifaceted, optionally-Orwellian glory), YouTube, Pictures, Calendar, and Camera. Oh, and an MP3 player compatible with all the common file formats, including Apple's iTunes aac and Window's wma. Handy, that.
All said and done, Android might convert but a few of those Steve Jobs drones, those iPhoners, maybe a small gaggle of the otherwise devout Crackberryheads, but HTC and Rogers are well aware the so-called "smartphone" market, though heavily contested currently, is but an infant. There's plenty of growth ahead; might as well get in while the gettin's good.
As for Google's stake, note most of the Android feature-set mentioned above is currently dominating the desktop computer space. Being all free and open, Google isn't expecting a cash cow out of Android directly, but rather an expansion of the brand into the mobile space with a system as familiar, nay, as ubiquitous as Google this-that-and-the-other-thing-dot-com.
More about Google, Android, Smartphone, Mobility, iPhone
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