When Sergey Brin takes home a new toy, he likes to play around with it in the inquisitive manner natural to engineers. The mathematical genius who co-founded Google in 1998 may be worth tens of billions of dollars today, but he remains a committed nerd at heart. So when he was given a pre-release sample of the new G1 mobile phone, it was not long before the inner programmer emerged. Taking advantage of the phone's Android open-source operating system - developed largely by his company - and inbuilt accelerometer, he wrote a program that would measure the amount of time the phone spent in flight after he tossed it in the air.
Such is the nature of the G1 and Google's foray into the mobile industry. The new device hints at a coming shift in the market, which will bring the inventiveness and experimentation of Silicon Valley to a sector dominated until recently by stern Scandinavians. The shift started last year, when the Apple iPhone became one of the most talked about gadgets of all time, earning general acceptance in the technology press as the best mobile phone on the market.
But Apple's tight, restrictive management of the device, and the applications that can run on it, are earning the company an increasing amount of bad publicity. And while Apple drags its feet on arranging international distribution - in the entire Arab world, it will be sold only in Qatar and Egypt - the gap in the market for a nimble, open-minded competitor grows. Companies such as Samsung and Motorola have largely missed the point with their so-so attempts at iPhone imitations.
Research in Motion (RIM), the maker of the highly successful BlackBerry mobile e-mail phone, looks more likely to make inroads with their touch-screen effort, released recently in the US as the BlackBerry Storm. Google, however, appears to have struck closest to the mark with an ambitious alliance of software, hardware and networks companies who have invested together in the development of Android.
The new mobile operating system, built under a free, open-source licence, is designed to take advantage of new trends in mobile phones like touch screens, web browsing and always-on internet connections. Yesterday, the American mobile operator T-Mobile, a member of Google's mobile alliance, released a phone they call the G1, made by the Taiwanese manufacturer HTC. The phone combines a large rectangular touch screen with a slide-out keyboard, combining the best of iPhone and Blackberry. The device has all the bells and whistles of a modern smart phone, like a GPS satellite navigation system, web browser - a scaled-down version of the Google Chrome browser - and a live music store, which lets the user download songs directly to the phone from the music store of the online retailer Amazon.
The open-source nature of the Android operating system means anybody can develop whatever application they like, with no one playing the gatekeeper role that Apple does with the iPhone's application store. And because nobody owns Android, any manufacturer in the world can produce whatever phone they like that makes use of the system, opening the door for a wide variety of new devices, good and bad, to come in the future.
The G1 is a start, but it is unlikely to make much of a dent in iPhone sales. It has no headphone jack, forcing users to buy a customised headphone adaptor, which is not yet on sale. The design is far from iconic, with thick plastic and rounded edges exaggerating the phone's chunky body. And it is available only in the US, and only on the country's smallest national network. firstname.lastname@example.org