Google phone: Will open win over closed?

There are lots of reviews of the Google phone from HTC and T-Mobile flying around, including one from Walt Mossberg of the Journal that calls the G1 a “worthy competitor” for Apple’s iPhone, and one from David Pogue at the New York Times, who correctly points out that it isn’t really *the* Google phone. It’s just one of what will presumably be many Google phones, with different features, from different manufacturers. Don’t like the side-flipping keyboard or the fact that the tilt sensor doesn’t auto-rotate the display? Maybe the next Google phone will be more to your liking.

This is already a significantly different approach to the one Apple has taken, and in many ways the blogosphere’s typical (and natural) focus on the specifics of the actual G1 device itself tends to obscure the larger picture of what Google is doing. In almost every way, the Google phone approach is open, while the Apple approach is the same as it has always been: either completely closed or very strictly controlled. That kind of focus, of course, arguably makes Apple products more appealing because the hardware, software and services are tightly integrated.

That approach also restricts choice, however. Don’t like AT&T’s service? Too bad — the iPhone is only available from one carrier. The G1, by contrast, can be unlocked after 90 days and used on any GSM network. Want to use a VOIP application on your iPhone? Tough. Apple and AT&T have decided that you can’t do that, and they will remove any such app from the download store and/or remotely disable it on your device. And Apple has also decreed that you can’t run anything that competes with iTunes. Google says you can run whatever you like on your phone, and will even allow software developers to rewrite some of the phone’s functions.

From the descriptions of the G1 that I’ve seen so far (and I’m talking about the software, not the HTC hardware, which according to most reports I’ve read appears to be underwhelming at best), it sounds like it is everything that Windows Mobile could have been but isn’t: easy to use, configurable, flexible and filled with features that most Windows devices still don’t have. It will be interesting to see whether the open approach draws more users than Apple’s classic, hermetically-sealed approach.

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