What the Google phone stole from the iPhone.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Nov. 17 2008 4:41 PM

Second Bite at the Apple

What the Google phone stole from the iPhone.

Farhad Manjoo chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript

The iPhone.
The iPhone

There is a story that Steve Jobs likes to tell about fonts. In 1972, Jobs enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Ore.; after a semester, seeing little value in college, he dropped out. But Jobs hung around Portland—he crashed in friends' dorm rooms, recycled Coke bottles to buy food, and sat in on several courses that he found interesting. One of these was a calligraphy class; it was there that Jobs first realized the simple, underappreciated beauty of the written language on a page. Calligraphy, he recalled in a 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, was "beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating."

For many years, Jobs' interest in typography played no part in his work. In 1976, Jobs and his hacker friend Steve Wozniak started Apple, and their first great machine, the Apple II, featured the same bland, monospaced typefaces found on other computers. But in the 1980s, when Jobs and his team were developing the Mac, he realized that he could squeeze all that he'd learned in his calligraphy course into the new computer. The Mac was the first consumer machine to offer multiple fonts and the first to use "proportionally spaced" typefaces, meaning that unlike on a typewriter, some characters could be wider or narrower than others. (The letter I needs less space than the letter W.) Jobs' revolution in typography didn't go unnoticed; Microsoft wisely copied his proportional fonts when it developed Windows. In other words, there's a direct connection between a choice Steve Jobs made in college and that unfortunate PowerPoint you just made in comic sans: As Jobs told the Stanford grads, "If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do."

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I got to thinking about this anecdote as I spent time over the past few weeks with the T-Mobile G1, the first phone to run Google's new Android mobile operating system. Among Android's many visually arresting features are its fonts. Google commissioned Ascender, a font house in Illinois, to create a custom Android font to render most of the phone's text; the font, Droid, is both stylish and highly readable, calling to mind Apple's minimalist aesthetic. That's not the only thing reminiscent of Apple in Google's phone. The G1 and the Android operating system are not copies of the iPhone and its software—they're not Windows Vista to Apple's Mac OS X. But in a deeper sense, everything about the Google phone seems inspired and indebted to the iPhone.

That's because, like the iPhone, the Google phone's best feature is its attractive, well-designed interface. The most important thing about the G1 is not what it does but how it does it. This sounds obvious: Doesn't every mobile phone company set out to create a usable interface? Spend a minute trying to navigate deep lists of drop-down menus on a Windows Mobile or BlackBerry device and you'll have your answer. Before the iPhone, phones were pretty to look at but a pain to use; the last blockbuster mobile phone, Motorola's RAZR, induced aneurysms when you tried to do anything but make a phone call. The iPhone changed all that: In the same way that the Mac proved that people want computers that can display calligraphy, the iPhone proved that people want phones that don't require a manual. If Android succeeds—even if it one day manages to beat out the iPhone in market share, which seems plausible given Google's ambitions—it will be because Steve Jobs paved the way.

None of this is meant to denigrate the G1. It is a fine phone—if it had been released a year before the iPhone, rather than a year after, we might have called it revolutionary. You turn it on to see a bright, uncluttered main menu that features a handful of icons for frequently used apps (maps, search, the Web, etc.). To load one up, simply tap the screen with your finger—yup, just like you've seen people do on those iPhone commercials. I found Android's apps speedy and intuitive. Its e-mail program, which integrates with a Gmail account, is superior to the iPhone's, allowing you to see messages in conversation threads and to search through your inbox. (If you don't use Gmail, you've got to use another, less well-designed e-mail app.) The G1 will also appeal to people who find the iPhone's touch-screen keyboard difficult to use. You can use both your thumbs to type on the G1's slide-out physical keyboard, making for far speedier text entry than on the iPhone.

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