Google Search Results: Form Over Function For G1

20 November 2008

For anyone who’s handled the G1, the form factor has probably raised an eyebrow. In a market dominated by sleek and often minimalist designs, the G1 breaks tradition and devotes itself to functionality. While it’s not the first mobile device to feature a slide-out screen and full QWERTY keyboard, it is certainly high profile.

A big test for the G1 lies in how the hardware and odd form factor work with Android and its applications and how it is accepted by the public. The G1’s recent launch in London yielded mixed results, with a large number of preorders but poor overall sales, leading some to place blame on the device’s aesthetic appeal.

The G1’s physical characteristics lend themselves well to its focus on functionality. Few things are more intuitive these days than a full QWERTY keyboard, and when paired with a capacitive LCD touchscreen and BlackBerry-like trackball, the user gets to decide how to best interface with the device. The touchscreen is intuitive and intelligently-responsive, the trackball precise and accurate, and the keyboard is spacious and nicely concealed behind the slide-out touchscreen.

With what appears to be an emphasis on functionality and versatility, the G1’s hardware and unique design pair well with the G1-branded applications, including both pre-installed software like Gmail and Google Maps and third-party programs from the Android Market application store.

Google’s Software
The G1 was built to interface quickly, easily, and constantly with Google applications and the Google “cloud”—Google’s name for the user data stored online. Several of the G1’s pre-installed applications therefore work particularly well with the hardware, seamlessly jumping between applications and back again.

The G1’s Gmail application is perhaps the best example of integration between the Android operating system, the G1, and Google’s ubiquitous cloud. Gmail on the G1 includes many of the same mechanisms as the online version, including nearly instantaneous push email through auto-synchronization with Google’s servers.

Google’s cloud plays a central role in Gmail, as well as with Contacts and the Calendar applications. Auto-synchronization of information with the cloud provides instant updates for these programs, meaning a contact or calendar edited online is immediately available on the G1 and vice versa. iSuppli even found that incoming email sometimes appeared on the G1 before the PC client.

Google Maps is another well-integrated application included on the G1. As soon as Maps is opened, the GPS icon appears in the notification bar, letting the user know that the device is acquiring satellites.. When the application is closed, the GPS receiver is deactivated, thus saving valuable battery power.

Maps in the software are available in different modes, including classic Map, Satellite, Traffic, and Street View. Both Map and Satellite are easy-to-use and function smoothly. Maps load quickly and center upon one’s location if the user moves near the edges of the screen. The touchscreen allows for easy panning across cities and zooming in and out, while the trackball gives accurate point and click functionality.

Traffic mode on the G1 uses the same details available through the online Google Maps, giving users a visible assessment of congestion on major roadways through intuitive red, yellow, and green colored overlays. Google Maps Traffic mode has one significant difference between the online version and the G1 however: the G1 does not include any traffic announcements.

Street View on the G1 functions the same as the online version but adds an internal digital compass. Users can touch the static Street View image and enter the dynamic Compass Mode. This internal compass lets the user physically turn their body and watch as the Street View images rotate as well. Compass Mode gives the user a 360° view of their surroundings, pushing the days of disorientation into the past.

Within Google Maps, the My Location button centers the map for the user. The handset first employs the assisted-GPS (aGPS), centering the map on the nearest cellular basestation almost instantaneously. A blue cloud radiating outwards signifies your possible location within the area. Meanwhile, the GPS radio searches for a satellite signal to more accurately locate the user and centers the map its position. The combination of both methods gives a quick estimate of position, useful for fast Google Local Searches, followed by the accuracy of GPS.

Android Market Applications
The pre-installed applications on the G1 are not the only programs that offer resourceful features and thoughtful integration with the hardware. The Android Market is full of user-developed applications with the potential to revolutionize the platform and push the limits of the young Android operating system.

Wikitude is one of the best examples of prolific use of the G1’s hardware and intelligent use of the internet’s resources. The application uses an internet connection, camera, GPS, and the internal digital compass to orient the user with regards to POI (point of interest) landmarks in the Panoramio database.

Map views feature geo-localized Panoramio entries laid over Google street or satellite maps with an explanation of the POI. Entering Cam View however gives the user one of the most involved experiences of any Android app: through the camera’s view and with a compass-based radar screen as a reference, Wikitude lays out nearby Panoramio POI on the horizon, allowing the user to match up their current view of the horizon with any POI in front of them.

Real-time weather applications have begun to also use the internal GPS to find location information for easier and more accurate weather forecasts. Programs such as iMap Weather detect your location and automatically retrieve the current conditions, forecast and radar imagery. The radar map even shows the user’s position, laid out over the familiar Google maps interface.

In contrast, some applications still require the user to input their location for location-based services. For example, the Weather Channel’s program is essentially their website ported to the Android OS, offering no location-awareness despite weather being innately location-based. Moreover, the fact that it’s one of the most popular applications on the Market speaks volumes about the percentage of consumers who know of or value location-aware services.

Shopping-conscious users will find applications like ShopSavvy and CompareEverywhere to be a perfect companion to their G1. Combining different elements of the G1’s hardware, these community-developed applications allow the user to scan a barcode with the camera, retrieve product information over the air, and use Maps to show local stores that sell the product.

What’s Missing?
A noteworthy absence in the Android Market concerns real-time navigation and turn-by-turn directions. With the expected convergence of the PND with mobile phones, real-time turn-by-turn navigation on new smartphones seems logical, but the G1 is the latest device to fall short of that expectation (Apple’s iPhone being the another significant guilty party).

Navigation programs would likely find a comfortable home with the hardware present in the G1, but Android would also need to add some functionality to realize full turn-by-turn, real-time navigation. The 3.2-inch touchscreen is certainly enough to give ample information to the driver, and the close integration with Google Maps could only help navigation applications. However, text input is currently only supported through the keyboard with no touch-based input available, something that surely would be required for optimal in-vehicle use of the G1.

The G1 also includes speech recognition software for voice dialing, useful for hands-free or simplified calling but rudimentary when one looks at the capabilities of advanced voice recognition software today.

Likewise, the G1 doesn’t contain any speech synthesis software. If mobile phones are expected to compete against the best PNDs on the market for real-time navigation, destination entry by voice and dynamic text-to-speech will surely be points worthy of consideration.

Though under-utilized in many devices, Bluetooth is becoming more present, particularly in automotive settings. The G1, at least version 1.0, only features hands-free and headset profiles. While the Android development team was unable to adequately refine the Bluetooth stack for opening-day release, they included popular profiles and have assured the community that the G1’s Bluetooth will be expanded in the near future, including support for A2DP streaming audio.

Android Evolution
While the marriage of form and function didn’t quite arrive with the G1, hardware and software capabilities came together to create a device with a wide array of connectivity and resourceful applications that begin to show what Android applications can achieve.

While Google’s pre-installed applications work smoothly, it will soon be the Android and G1 communities that will bring both the operating system and the handset to its fullest potential.

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