Switched On: The T-Mobile G1 -- by Google and what's-their-names

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

As Switched On exemplified in the frenzy of mobile Ts and primary Gs last week, much of the attention focused on the involvement of Google and comparisons to the iPhone. Searching Google for "'T-Mobile G1' Apple" yields over 6.7 million results on Google. Searching for "'T-Mobile G1' HTC" yields only 3.4 million.

Given that the phone is being branded "T-Mobile G1 with Google," the temptation is to say that HTC, which has long vowed to step into the white light from behind the white label, has failed to capitalize on one of the best branding opportunities in handset history. However, there would have been limits as to how much spotlight it could have stolen in the wake of media fascination with Google and one can have only so many brands listed in the name of a phone. Wireless carriers are among the biggest television advertisers, and Google is the biggest advertising powerhouse online. Together they will fund the G1 marketing push. The stakes were just too high for HTC to significantly advance its branding status with T-Mobile, which has used its carrier brand for such HTC handsets as the Dash, Wing and Shadow.

But there are more paradoxes in HTC's first Android handset.

HTC has committed to Android as the operating system of choice for its future consumer handsets. Yet the hardware design of the G1 -- with its PDA-like button layout and Leno-esque chin -- falls short of the attractive, sleek designs such as the Touch Pro that the company has recently delivered in its Windows Mobile lineup. In addition, Android was supposed to facilitate greater diversity and differentiation for handset manufacturers and operators to tailor their own experience, but the Android experience feels generic at this point compared to the engaging TouchFLO interface HTC has built atop Windows Mobile, or even the less flashy shell that T-Mobile put on the Windows Mobile-based Shadow.

The G1, true to its name, is a first-generation handset and there is benefit to highlighting the well-known Google's influence on this introductory device, but over time the focus needs to shift for Android to stand out from competitors and blend into the experiences that its partners want to create.

On the other hand, T-Mobile could hardly have played the timing of the Android card better, coming on the heels of some iPhone backlash. For while T-Mobile is the last U.S. carrier to introduce a handset with a large touch screen, it is the first to introduce a smartphone with those traits. In contrast, while Sprint had good success with the well-executed Instinct beating the iPhone 3G to market and certainly didn't hesitate to compare it to the first-generation iPhone, the Instinct simply couldn't conjure the platform war intrigue that Android carries with it.

Even better for T-Mobile, the G1 is essentially the launch pad for T-Mobile's 3G network service whereas the first iPhone could not take advantage of AT&T's HSPA network. As an exclusive, the G1 is the most important handset T-Mobile has ever launched and the carrier is gearing up for what it has described as its biggest marketing effort for a handset ever (which was also true for Sprint and the Instinct). However, depending on its exclusivity window for Android, the G1 will be more challenged to deliver for T-Mobile that prized benefit that the iPhone has delivered for AT&T -- enticing competitors' consumers to switch.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.