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Tech Lab

Android system extends grip on smartphone market

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / July 30, 2009

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In the movies, androids are always taking over the world. In real life, not so much.

The invasion began last October, when T-Mobile USA launched its G1 cellphone. It was the first to feature Android, Google Inc.’s operating system for smartphones that was supposed to offer a compelling alternative to Apple’s superb iPhone.

The G1 hasn’t done badly. In April, T-Mobile said it had sold 1 million of the Android-based phones in six months. It’s an impressive performance, until you recall that Apple sold that many iPhone 3Gs in the first three days.

Still, the G1 made Android the fourth-most-popular smartphone operating system in the United States, trailing the iPhone, the BlackBerry OS from Research In Motion Ltd., and Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Mobile. Now, Google and its partners are sending in reinforcements. Verizon Wireless, the nation’s largest cellular carrier, will begin selling Android phones this fall; Sprint Nextel Corp. has also announced an upcoming Android handset.

Although T-Mobile is the only US source for Android phones right now, you’ll soon have two models to choose from. Next week, the company launches the MyTouch 3G, a thinner, lighter handset from HTC Corp. of Taiwan, which also made the original G1.

The MyTouch slims down by eliminating the snap-out keyboard that gave the G1 its thick, chunky shape. The new phone retains the same 3.2-inch touchscreen, which now doubles as a virtual keyboard. The MyTouch’s screen is narrower than the one on the iPhone, which makes typing a challenge for the thick-fingered. Still, I had little trouble pecking out messages.

The new Android phone does suffer from the same control clutter as the old G1. There are too many buttons, and it’s not always obvious which ones to press. But at least the MyTouch eliminates the G1’s button for snapping photos with the phone’s 3.2-megapixel camera; now you just touch the screen instead. In its place, the MyTouch provides a dedicated search button. Press it anytime to launch a Google Internet search window. Hold it down, and you launch voice search; just speak your search terms into the microphone. It’s not a bad idea, but I found myself yearning for the iPhone’s simplicity.

One promise T-Mobile has kept is its pledge to improve on the G1’s battery life. After a day of hard use, the G1 died on me, but the MyTouch still had plenty of power in reserve.

That’s even more impressive when you remember that Android phones can run multiple software programs simultaneously. Apple generally blocks such multitasking because it reduces battery life, but the MyTouch embraces it. As a result, Android software developers can write little programs, or “apps,’’ that run in the background while the phone performs some other job.

For instance, I had the task reminder program Astrid beeping away every 30 minutes, reminding me to write this column. At the same time, I was running an environmental program called Ecorio, which used GPS to track my commute to work. Ecorio calculated that I dumped 4 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by driving to the office, and suggested I could save the planet by riding the Red Line in from Quincy.

These are just a couple of the 6,000 or so apps created for Android phones. Granted, the iPhone has far more - over 65,000 at last count. But Android’s built up a pretty good library in less than a year, including adaptations of many of the best iPhone apps, and a lot of them are pretty good.

I got quite a kick out of SnapTell, a little program from Amazon.com that does comparison shopping for books, video games, music CDs, and DVDs. Just point the phone’s camera at the product’s cover and shoot a picture of it. SnapTell processes the image, identifies the product, and scours the Internet for other retailers that sell it and the prices they charge.

Other impressive apps are Android exclusives. Last week, Apple refused to carry an iPhone app that lets the user route all his phone calls through Google’s new telephone service, Google Voice - but there is an Android version.

While the iPhone is produced by just one company, Android is a software standard that can be offered by many companies. Already, 30 cell carriers in 20 countries are peddling Android phones, and two of America’s biggest carriers will start selling them this year. The iPhone will easily outsell any one of these phones, but collectively, Google’s cellphone technology could end up on tens of millions of handsets, and become the global standard for smartphones. The Android invasion is just getting started.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.