What the Google phone stole from the iPhone.

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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."

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.

In several ways, though, the G1's interface still lags behind that of Apple's phone. Though it has a touch screen, Android lacks Apple's language of finger gestures. To zoom in on text in Android's Web browser, you click an on-screen magnifying glass icon; on the iPhone, you simply double-tap on the area you want to expand. The iPhone lists all of your apps on its main menu; you don't need to navigate any deeper menus to get to them. But the G1 hides its many preloaded apps behind another on-screen interface—a slider that you've got to pull out every time you want to run that program. (There is a way to add a favorite application to the phone's home screen, but you'll have to click around to figure out how.)

Google's best Android idea is filched directly from Apple: Android Market, a store for third-party developers to sell apps for Google's phones, is a worthy imitation of Apple's iPhone App Store. Google promises to be more inclusive in its app-selection process than Apple, which has arbitrarily banned a number of programs from the App Store. But Google also recognizes that Apple has hit on the best way to distribute programs for a mobile device: put all the apps in one place.

The G1 is just the first of many new phones that will feature the Android OS; in the face of consumer demand for more iPhone-like devices, handset manufacturers across the globe are clamoring to bring out their Android devices. (Google's OS is open-source, so handset manufacturers can include it on their devices for free.) Motorola, which saw such enormous success with the RAZR, reportedly plans to ditch many of its own OSes in favor of Android.

In a similar vein, Verizon will begin to sell the BlackBerry Storm on Friday. It's the first BlackBerry without a physical keyboard—like the iPhone, it uses a touch screen. Anticipation is running high; Apple recently surpassed BlackBerry's manufacturer, Research in Motion, in smartphone sales, and RIM is itching for a blockbuster. Its strategy is much like Google's: pay close attention to Apple. The BlackBerry Storm's interface uses gestures similar to those found on Apple's phone—tap to load an app, flick to scroll down a menu, hit on-screen keys to enter text. (See a Web-based demo of the Storm's interface here.) RIM is also building an Apple-like app store, the BlackBerry Application Storefront.

Steve Jobs eschews focus groups. He likes to say that he doesn't believe in asking customers what they want; he prefers to build stuff in order to show customers what they want. That's what happened with the Mac: He showed us we wanted a graphical computer, and then we all went out and bought one (even if we didn't buy one from Apple). The same thing is happening in the phone market, too. Jobs showed us that we all want a phone with a touch screen and an app store. Google and RIM are happy to oblige.

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