Google’s Android quickly captures robust attention

For the past week, I’ve been using a touch-screen smartphone that is simply the best phone I’ve used in some time—and I’m an iPhone owner.

The HTC Incredible (available April 29 from Verizon Wireless, $200 after contract and rebate) carries a name filled with expectations, and I can say, the phone delivers on its boastful identity.

This slim, light phone is exceptionally fast, opening and closing apps in a snap. It is also the fastest phone I’ve used over a wireless network, connecting to the Internet so quickly it was as if I were using the computer in my home office. (An even faster phone is right behind the Incredible, when HTC introduces the Evo, a phone that will run on Sprint’s 4G network.)

The feature-filled HTC Incredible—it has an 8-megapixel camera, a 3.7-inch screen, runs Microsoft Outlook and includes Google’s free navigation software—will please Verizon fans who were thinking of switching to AT&T to grab an iPhone.

But it also represents a trend that is sometimes hard to spot in space so thoroughly dominated by Apple: Android phones are darn good. Better, we are still in the early days of smartphone adoption, so innovation continues to have a real chance of grabbing market share.

Of current mobile phone owners, only an estimated 24 percent were smartphone users in the first quarter of 2010, according to Nielsen. That’s up from 16 percent during the same period in 2009, but well short of the 40 percent ownership rate expected for next year’s first quarter.

The iPhone has been the key driver, as it was the first smartphone to showcase the might of a well-designed device—a pocket computer, really—that provides all sorts of useful information, from nutritional breakdowns of a steak dinner to mapping a long walk to burn off some calories.

Still, the most interesting, innovative and fastest-growing mobile platform isn’t available for the iPhone; it is Google’s Android operating system.

According to ComScore, the Android platform posted the fastest growth for the three-month period between November 2009 and February 2010. Android sales increased 5 percent, bringing Android’s share to 9 percent of the smartphone market. That still trails the share from BlackBerry’s Research in Motion (42 percent) and Apple (25 percent), yet growth was flat for those companies during the same period.

Android’s fast growth is fueled by the platform’s availability at every major U.S. wireless carrier, giving consumers a choice that Apple so far has avoided (although that could change very soon). That choice includes an impressive array of hardware, from phones that use only touch to navigate (Google’s Nexus One) to ones that incorporate a physical keyboard (the Motorola Droid, sold at Verizon). There are also phones that do cool keyboard tricks, like the Moto Backflip (available at AT&T), and operate exceptionally quickly, such as the HTC Incredible.

Are Android-based phones better than iPhones? In some cases, certainly. In others, no.

From a touch-screen standpoint, the iPhone still has the best user-experience. The gap is narrowing, however. In my tests with the HTC Incredible, I was impressed at how responsive the touch controls are. You can even pinch photos with two fingers to enlarge them, just as on the iPhone.

One thing holding Android back is marketing. There is no coordinated push behind Android phones, in part because of the amalgam of hardware makers and wireless carriers that build and sell the phones. That is a one reason why Google has developed its own phone, the Nexus One. Google wanted to showcase the platform more than get into the hardware business.

But Google has not matched Apple in terms of crisp messaging. It is matching Apple in other ways, however.

Android phones offer some great features, such as free turn-by-turn driving directions. You can attach the Nexus One to a specially designed dashboard mount and it will work just as well as most $200 stand-alone GPS devices.

Android phones are app-based, like the iPhone, so that means third-party software developers are creating a host of products. Some are familiar to iPhone users, such as the excellent At Bat 2010, which allows you to listen to any Major League Baseball game on your phone. Others are more obscure, such as the gambling game Exalted Dice. (I’ll write more about Android apps in next week’s column.)

So far, nearly 50,000 apps are available from the Android Market. That’s a fraction of the 180,000 available from Apple, but both platforms are growing rapidly. Many analysts—this writer included—believe more than 100,000 apps will be available for Android by the end of this year.

Another area spurring innovation is Google’s hands-off approach to development. Whereas Apple runs a tight ship regarding how apps interact on its platform (Adobe’s popular Flash program is blocked), Google provides little oversight. Hence, phone makers are allowed to create specialized software to integrate with Android.

A great example is the Motorola phones running the Moto Blur software. Moto Blur manages social media so well that you may have a hard time putting down your phone for fear you’ll miss the latest thing your clever friend posted to Facebook or Twitter. The Moto Blur phones include the Cliq (T-Mobile), the Back Flip (AT&T) and the Devour (Verizon). I’m pretty enamored with the Motorola Devour ($150 with two-year contract on Verizon Wireless) I’ve been testing.

In a simple set-up process on the Devour, I integrated Facebook, Twitter and my Gmail into a single account. Hence, on my phone’s home screen, I see my Facebook feed, my latest tweet and tweets from the people I follow, and a Gmail cue that alerts me to new e-mail messages (I could also add Outlook). Meanwhile, an icon allows me to view my “universal” inbox with a touch of the screen. This inbox includes Facebook e-mails, direct messages from Twitter and text messages. Thanks to this tool, all of this information—overload for some, required reading for others—is just a tap away.

Further, if I want to update my status (“Writing a new column for Vegas Seven!”), I can do it once and share it on Facebook and Twitter (and MySpace, too, if it still mattered).

Frankly, I wonder why there is even a phone built into the Devour, as it takes a brilliant approach for tapping into how many people communicate today.

Generally, the iPhone remains easier to use than Android phones, but the gap is narrow. You’ll find ardent fans for both platforms—I’m neutral, as I love the innovation—but there’s no doubt that Android offers more choice. In these early days of smartphone adoption, it’s good to have choice.

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Let the sun shine on your gadgets

Let the sun shine on your gadgets

Looking to take a vacation away from technology? Good luck. These days, it takes a lot of discipline to turn off your Blackberry or iPhone and get away from it all. Even a weeklong camping trip to the Valley of Fire State Park doesn’t mean you’ll be without access to e-mail anymore. OK, it can be tricky to get cell reception, but there’s no need to go without power.