When can something be locked yet still be open?
When it’s a mobile handset sold by a wireless carrier concerned about security and bandwidth issues, whose platform was built by an group dedicated to open compute systems.
The answer, in short, is the G1. That’s the official name of the T-Mobile HTC handset launched by Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Tuesday in a direct challenge to Apple’s iPhone for the heart and mindshare of mobile device users eager for faster Web access to data and communication applications.
In locking the G1 to its 3G network, via monthly voice and data plan subscriptions ranging from $25 to $35, T-Mobile has control over what applications will be available to users.
And it’s the level of control, according to experts, that advances the handset’s allure and could also pose some challenges.
While the open platform allows third-party development T-Mobile has locked the device from other networks. The approach is typical with carrier-subsidized handsets — and the prime element in keeping device price points low. The G1’s initial price is $179 with a two-year data subscription plan. Carriers traditionally want control over application use to avoid network security issues as well as bandwidth issues.
Research firm Strategy Analytics estimates that nine out of 10 GSM/CDMA handsets sold in the US this year will be SIM-locked.
Android was built under the auspices of the Open Handset Alliance, which has said the platform will come under one of the “most progressive, developer-friendly open source licenses” to provide significant freedom and flexibility for product design. Google, which acquired Android in 2005, (NASDAQ: GOOG) announced its mobile phone plans in November 2007.
One industry expert, who called the G1 a “compelling story,” said the device illustrates that today’s “mobile phone is the new PC” and “everything is open right now.”
“The message is that the open platform is being embraced and the mobile world just got a little more interesting,” Michael Gartenberg, vice president of mobile strategy, Mediabistro, told InternetNews.com. (Mediabistro and InternetNews.com are owned by the same parent company, Jupitermedia Corp.)
For example T-Mobile will not restrict applications providing a work-around to the SIM lock feature or prohibit Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) software, such as Skype applications, that come from the Android development community, according to Gartenberg.
“T-Mobile’s CTO [Cole Brodman, who also serves as chief innovation officer for T-Mobile USA] told me that he while he can’t say he’d like that to happen he isn’t going to restrict it or stop it,” said Gartenberg. “That’s the spirit of how open they are to being an open platform and the fact they understand what it’s all about.”
According to Gartenberg, T-Mobile will let users unlock devices after 90 days and in case of needing local SIM cards for international travel.
Yet some other pundits believe there’ll be hurdles in bringing the beauty of an open platform into a closed network device.
Next page: So much for open.
“So much for open,” Jack Gold, analyst, J.Gold Associates, told InternetNews.com following Tuesday’s launch event. “It still begs the question of why the G1 is different as I don’t see many users, consumer or business, dumping their existing phones and carriers to rush out and buy this device,” said Gold.
“Locking the SIM is a little at odds with Google’s hype around openness,” Neil Mawston, director of the global wireless practice for Strategy Analytics, told InternetNews.com.
Yet Mawston believes Google’s development community, called the Android Market, will let developer creates applications for the platform without any prior approval process.
“Neither Google nor T-Mobile will ban or edit any legitimate applications,” said Mawston.
The big issue that may crop up, according to one pundit, is competition around application development. “Openness can lead to fragmentation,” said Carolina Milanesi, research director for mobile devices technology at Gartner.
“We also need to see what will happen if developers are starting to come up with applications that get into competition with what Google or T-Mobile offer,” Milanesi said.
Another pundit is excited that the device provided more than he expected in terms of features.
“On one hand it went further than I thought,” said telecom analyst Jeff Kagan. “I thought it was going to be a platform which they would build on — a platform for the future. It is that. But it is also a device which looks very good,” he said.
Yet some pundits weren’t overwhelmed by the features and looks.
“This is not earth shattering, as HTC could have brought more to the table in terms of design and sleekness,” Ryan Reith, senior analyst with IDC, told InternetNews.com.
“It is rather lacking in sexiness but the big value is around the services, user interface and functionality,” said Reith, who called it “powerful,” noting the device’s Qualcomm chipset.
The applications shown at launch seemed to ignite excitement with pundits. During the event Google demonstrated the Google Maps Street View, which lets customers explore cities at street-level. The feature syncs with the phone’s built-in compass for viewing locations and navigate 360 degrees by simply moving the phone with their hand.
Reith, who said he tested the application, called it a “phenomenal” feature.
“The real benefit of Android is still some time out, as it will take the developer community a bit of time to do what they do best,” said Reith. “But you can bet that we will see applications that will come that will do amazing things on this platform.”