Wednesday, November 19, 2008

G1: Text messaging

As I said in the last review, the G1 is an indifferent phone. But when it comes to texting, it's really quite good.

That's not just because of the keyboard, although the keyboard certainly helps. As I intimated in an earlier post, one big reason I didn't go with the iPhone was its lack of a keyboard - or, really, any physical buttons beyond the single button at the bottom. It reminds me of Apple's one-button mouse. The G1 has four physical buttons plus the world's smallest trackball, which is arguably overkill, but I'm not complaining. I can choose not to use a button. But I can't choose to use one that's not there.

Without the keyboard, iPhone users have a problem. To use this elegant piece of hardware, they have to inelegantly hold it in one hand while repeatedly jabbing it with the forefinger of the other hand. Although the softkeys are not too small for everyone, I found them to be very hard to select in my in-store tests. Sure, I might get used to them. But I would still have to jab the device with my forefinger. No thanks.

In contrast, the G1's keyboard is like a Sidekick's, hidden beneath a screen that you slide out. When you do this, the screen orientation changes to horizontal and you can type with your thumbs. Both thumbs. In practice, this is a lot faster. (Although it's not as convenient as texting on the physical ten-key of my old phone with predictive text activated. I really liked one-handed texting, but that won't be an option on the G1 until someone comes up with a suitable soft keypad.)

The keyboard is small, and at first I was worried that it wouldn't be up to the job. But after a couple of days, I found that I was typing at a pretty good clip. The main problem is that I don't see any arrow keys or beginning-of-line/end-of-line options. Too bad! You can use the trackball to guide the cursor, but the trackball is oversensitive (it's about the size of a BB) and I find that I often jump lines or jump out of the field with it.

I'm disappointed that you can't seem to cut or paste text in the Messages program, too. You can cut and paste in GMail, GCalendar, and the Browser, but not across all programs.

So far, no surprises. But the messaging program itself is great. It divides texts into threads: every time someone texts me, their texts and my replies are put into an easily navigated thread. Threads are listed by interlocutor and alphabetized by their contact name (if they're in Contacts). If you text multiple people, it starts a thread with all of them and you can see all of the outgoing messages you send to the group. Android doesn't allow you to set up groups, but they would be redundant given the threaded functionality.

When you receive a message, G1 alerts you in the status bar (more on this later) and when you enter Messages, the active thread is marked with a green bar. I'm much, much better able to tell at a glance what messages I've received and to see from context what conversations are going on. And of course my Twitter stream is kept separate from my other conversations, which makes it much easier for me to make sure I don't accidentally send a personal message to Twitter or vice versa.

Overall, if you're looking for a phone primarily for texting, the G1 looks great.

G1: The difference between a mobile internet device and a phone

Last post, I talked about how remarkable the G1 in terms of gathering information about locations, thanks to its compass, GPS, and camera. Capabilities like these are why I decided to go with the G1. But devices can't always be great at everything. And if you evaluate the G1 based on its nominal primary function - as a phone - you won't be impressed, because it's a C at best.

Why? So many reasons.

The G1 has a green and black physical button on the front (on other phones, it's labeled "Talk") and pressing it brings up the Dialer - a tabbed interface with a soft ten-key for dialing, a call history, a Contacts list, and a Favorites list (for contacts you've starred). The contacts, by the way, sync beautifully with your Google Contacts (more on which later). So far so good.

Dialing goes as you would expect, but it's not intuitive that once you've dialed the number, you must press the green physical button.

Dialing into voicemail is similar to any other phone I've had: long press 1. No visual voicemail, but I can live with that. (A vendor is supposedly developing third-party visual voicemail.) But the ten-key fades from the screen after a few seconds, so navigating the voicemail tree - or any other phone tree - is not fun. You have to press a physical key to bring the screen back up, then press the soft key you want. If you get my voice mail and you hear me say "Clay Spinuzzi" followed by an uncomfortably long pause, that's why. Perhaps there's an easy fix for this issue, but it should work out of the box.

You have a similar issue when hanging up. Say goodbye, take the phone away from your face, and press the red-and-black hang-up button. The screen lights up to show your call is still going, Press it again, and after a pause the call ends. If you're impatient, perhaps you press it twice, in which case the call ends and the device goes to sleep.

If you use the headphones, as I discovered recently, it's almost impossible to tell if you've actually pressed the headphones button. I plan to put some kind of bump on the button so I can tell where the thing is.

On the other hand, the G1 gets some things very right.

For one thing, calls are much clearer than on my previous phones. Great. The headphones are also nicely done. I've seen some complaints about the setup: the headphones have a lower part that plugs into the micro USB and contains the microphone, and then a jack for standard stereo headphones. For me, that is not a problem -- unless you want to use the headphones and charge at the same time.

For another, the other parts of the dialer really work well. The call history is great, with visually sharp characters as well as well-designed and color-coded icons to show the kinds of events in the call history. The Contacts can show all contacts (including any email address you've ever mailed through GMail), particular categories of contacts, or just contacts with phone numbers. Star one of these contacts and it'll show up under the Favorites tab, which is a great way to track the people you call frequently.

But integration with online contacts is not the only kind of integration. If you use Google Maps to look up a business, you can add it to your Contacts. Name, address, phone numbers, website if applicable, all go to contacts. That's been a real timesaver for me. Incidentally, you can use Contacts to launch phone calls, text messages, email, web browsing, or Google Maps; it becomes a nerve center for a variety of activities.

One more issue. Unlike the other phones I've owned, the G1 doesn't appear to allow me to assign a particular key to a phone number. But you can assign a contact shortcut to the desktop, which functions the same way. It's less intuitive for me, but it works well enough not to be a deficit.

Okay, so that's the phone portion. Bottom line, if you're primarily looking for a phone, keep walking. But if you're looking for an internet device that by the way has phone capabilities, the G1 might still fit the bill. And if you are interested in text messaging, it's definitely a strong contender. More on that soon.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

G1: Clairvoyance and Omniscience

As part of the ongoing T-Mobile G1 review, let's start with the G1's unique features. First, let's acknowledge that the G1 is like any Google product: beta. It is far from seamless. But its perpetual internet connection, compass, GPS, and camera allow it to do some interesting tricks. Let's enlist a little hyperbole.

Clairvoyance. When Google unveiled Android, the showstopper was their demo of StreetView. Google Maps had recently added StreetView to the desktop, allowing you to select a location and see a 360-degree photo of the location. You could pan it with the mouse to look at what your destination looks like. It was like clairvoyance. Android took that one step further: view street view with the compass on, and as you physically move the phone around, the photo pans. North in the photo is north. I have tried out this feature and it's fantastic.

Omniscience. But suppose you're visiting San Francisco and you want to know more about the local landmarks. Install and start Wikitude. The app uses GPS to figure out where you are and the compass to figure out where you're pointed. Then it lights up locations on the map with descriptions pulled from Wikipedia. But the real payoff is in Camera View: you see the real landscape through your phone's camera, and the landmarks are overlaid over the landscape. It's like Luke's binoculars in Star Wars.

Maybe you'd rather look at the stars. SkyMap takes the GPS and compass data and displays a 3d view of the stars, planets, and constellations. If you've wondered if that bright star is really Venus, you can compare the star map with the sky. And if you want to know what stars you would see if the Earth were transparent, just point the phone toward the floor.

These two capabilities are just the first of many exciting ones that the G1 brings. Which is great, because the G1 is a wonderful mobile internet device, but not a great phone. More on that later.

Obama's edge-based organization?

At the Harvard Business blog, John Sviokla is discussing what they call "Obama's Edge-Based Organization." He puts it this way:

What does it mean to have an edge-based organization? It means that everyone has situational awareness, skills to take action, shared values, and decision rights to empower the edge to take action (My thanks to my friends John Henderson and John Clippinger who have deeply influenced my thinking on this topic.) Obama's campaign did all of these.

Obama used the internet to endow the very edges of his organization with all the tools to self-organize, to get out the message with sophisticated media. He even armed them with an Apple iPhone application that allowed you to compare your address book to the centralized Obama campaign phone logs and see if there was someone you knew who needed to be called by you - not the machine - to support Obama. (See also my earlier blog post on Obama's use of the network compared to Hillary Clinton's.)
Hmm, I am not sure I want to go all the way down the path with this. What are the edges of the organization, as opposed to independent actants that are allied to the network? To use one offhand example, it was one of Obama's supporters at the periphery of his organization who broke perhaps the most damaging story about him. The article makes the organization sound much more coherent and unified than it actually seems to be.

Ribbit's killer app challenge

Ribbit, the company that built Amphibian (discussed in some of my previous posts), has unveiled a killer app challenge:

Ribbit is pleased to announce our $100,000 Killer App Challenge, a chance for developers to create the next killer application on the Ribbit open platform for integrating voice communications in applications, web sites, and communities.

The competition begins immediately and will conclude in March 2009. Cash prizes totaling $100,000 will be awarded to the most compelling, creative, and useful application in each of five development categories, as well as a grand prize for the best overall entrant.

The Killer App Challenge is an unparalleled opportunity for creative professionals, developers and entrepreneurs to have their ideas launched on this global stage. We’re looking for the kind of apps that will improve interactions between business and user, help brands better interact with their audiences, and evolve social networking into the next level of essential communication.

Mashable also pines for a command line for the Web

... and mourns poor Yubnub, a project that flourished briefly but that was truly ahead of its time. The new hope: Mashable points to Kwyno.