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    Google Androids tackle Apple iPhones in Canada

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business in Vancouver July 21-27 2009  issue #1030

    High Tech Office column

    This column has looked at a variety of would-be iPhone killers: smartphones with large touch-enabled screens for web-browsing, music-listening, photo- and video-viewing and more, from a variety of manufacturers. None has captured a large share of either market or public attention away from Apple’s device.

    Part of the problem is that competitors have focused on the hardware. The iPhone, however, has been successful because the hardware is just a piece of a larger whole, integrated with the on-phone user interface and a network expanding out to Apple’s wildly successful AppStore (“over a billion sold”).

    Perhaps surprisingly, Google is challenging Apple’s iPhone success. Not being a hardware manufacturer, it doesn’t directly produce or market phones. Instead, Google has sponsored development of a pocket-sized Linux variant, Android, making it available to smartphone manufacturers. A pair of models – HTC’s Magic and Dream – became the first Android-powered smartphones available in Canada on the Rogers/Fido network this spring ($99 with plan).

    The biggest difference between the two: the Dream features a slide-down relatively large QWERTY keyboard; the Magic, like the iPhone, uses an onscreen virtual keyboard. The Dream is similar to the HTC G1, which has been available on the T-Mobile network in the U.S. since last fall. Rogers loaned me a Dream for review.

    While much of the iPhone’s utility comes from its integration with Apple’s ecosystem, the Android phones’ biggest strength comes from their integration with Google’s range of services: Gmail, Google Maps and more. As a Gmail user, I was immediately in sync with my mail, contacts and calendar. There’s another e-mail program for everybody else – usable but more setup required than for Gmail users.

    The built-in GPS integrates nicely with Google Maps. The 3.2 megapixel camera includes video – a feature just matched by Apple. Like the iPhone, but unlike, BlackBerry’s touch-screen Storm, there’s Wi-Fi, allowing free Internet when in range of a wireless hotspot.

    Google’s alternative to Apple’s iPhone AppStore is the Android Market for easy download of add-on applications direct to the phone. Despite the name, nothing’s for sale at the Market. Everything, at least for now, is free. There are about 5,000 programs available – a fraction of what’s listed at the AppStore. (But as Mac users like to point out to Windows users, more software options doesn’t automatically equal better software options.)

    While Apple’s iPhone has built-in unexpandable storage and comes in eight-, 16- and 32-gigabyte models, the Dream and Magic models use the widely available MicroSD memory cards. A two-gigabyte card is included. Most users will want to buy a larger capacity card. Memory cards up to 16 gigabytes are supported. The Dream/Magic’s battery is replaceable; the iPhone’s isn’t.

    Also unlike the iPhone, the Androids have no support for touch-screen gestures like pinching or spreading two fingers to zoom in or out. And turning the unit 90 degrees doesn’t automatically change the screen from portrait to landscape. Despite this, I found the interface straightforward and easy and enjoyable to use.

    In some respects, Android is a more powerful operating system than the iPhone’s, with more advanced multitasking and copy/paste that Apple has only implemented in its most recent update. Expect to see Android-powered netbooks on the market soon.

    Business users may be pleased with the provision of support for Microsoft exchange servers – something that was missing with the Android G1 model released in the U.S.

    Battery life, however, is not great. Plan on getting in the habit of charging these every night.

    The pull-down keyboard makes the Dream bulkier than either its Magic sibling or the iPhone.

    Despite this, it’s a better way to input long messages or other text.

    If you fancy a physical keyboard in a smartphone, and especially if you’re already a user of Google’s e-mail and other services, it’s the best iPhone alternative I’ve seen. It’s ironic that it’s only available in Canada through Rogers/Fido, who also have the lock on the iPhone. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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