Looking back on my contrarian T-Mobile G1, the anti-iPhone, a decade later.
Ten years ago they were smart phones, not just phones. And the wasn’t just the world’s first Android smartphone. It was my first smartphone, too. But the reason I chose a “Google” phone over Apple’s gen-1 iPhone probably wasn’t all that smart.
I wanted my phone to be different.
Different from Apple and its iPhone, that is. As an employee at CNET I was bound to get a smartphone early-on, and the fact that I loved computers and gadgets in general speeded my adoption. The iPhone was the first modern smartphone, and a year and change after its release, I began to feel the inevitable pull toward buying one for myself. But I never loved Apple.
Apple is into walled gardens, and I wanted freedom to tinker, the way I did on my Windows PC. AT&T had the iPhone exclusive, and I was a longtime T-Mobilesubscriber, back in the days when phone contracts still mattered. With the cost of the required two-year contract from each carrier factored in, the G1 on T-Mobile was a lot less expensive than the iPhone on AT&T.
I also preferred Google’s software. I was one of the first people I know to make the switch to Gmail for my personal email, and I grew to love it. I also remember the wonder of Google Maps and especially Google Earth, zooming around the virtual globe to find a familiar street. Google’s other software wasn’t quite as developed at the time, but what appealed to me was the promise of a more open phone operating system, one that allowed more freedom that what I perceived from Apple. I could install whatever I wanted.
The original anti-iPhone
So I bought the first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 (it was released as the HTCDream outside the US). It was available in black or white, but the color I wanted was bronze. The moment I held it in the T-mobile store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn I fell in love.
This thing was supremely geeky, the antithesis of the svelte iPhone is so many ways. It was bronze, a beautifully contrarian answer to the silver-and-black iPhone. The G1 was chunky and thick, with a weird (lovable, to me) “chin” that interrupted the typical rectangular profile. It had all the extras: a microSD slot for expandable memory, a little clickable trackball in the middle of the chin for navigation and selecting, actual dedicated buttons for Home, Back and Menu, and even more buttons dedicated to making a phone call and taking a photo. And it said “Google” on the back.
Of course the G1 had a touchscreen too, but the best part was the slide-out physical keyboard. I really felt superior to iPhones with that thing. Their tiny little virtual keyboards, which took up half the screen, seemed impossibly slow and error-prone compared to the glorious, fully backlit, five-row tactile QWERTY powerhouse (with dedicated number keys!) that revealed itself when I slid aside the G1’s screen.
I loved how the screen re-oriented automatically into landscape mode when I opened the keyboard. I loved the substantial, satisfying “snick” sound it made as it sprang into action. I even loved how it made the phone physically bigger, like a miniature computer. At the time it seemed like the ultimate gadget, and in a lot of ways it was. Having never owned a smartphone before, I was amazed at its utility, the camera, the GPS capabilities and turn-by-turn navigation — all the marvelous complexity in a tiny, portable package.
Gmail worked beautifully on my phone, with all of the features like labeling and archiving that I got on the PC. I also loved the homescreen widgets like the Google search bar, and the ability to pull down the top of the screen for notifications, like new texts and emails, was great.
Pulling out my chunky phone to make calls or type texts occasionally earned curious looks from people, but it was New York and everybody was familiar with iPhones and BlackBerries; most people didn’t seem to notice or care.
I played a lot of games on the G1, from Bonsai Blast to Doom to Chrono Trigger, and the keyboard was actually useful on many of them. Screen-only games at the time had awkward controls that overlaid the screen, but some games for the G1 mapped the controls to the buttons, just like a computer keyboard, which left the whole screen for the game itself. I could fire with the space bar and use WASD to move around.
I remember the Android app universe always felt a step behind Apple’s, especially at the beginning. Apps for the system were sparse at the time, and my iPhone friends had apps and games (like Angry Birds) that I didn’t. I justified the lack by telling myself that the majority of nongaming stuff I wanted to do, like read news articles and forums, I could do on the phone’s browser.
Eventually I outgrew the G1 and moved on to another, bigger Android phone, the Samsung . This was T-Mobile’s variant of the very first Galaxy S phone, and it outpaced the now old G1 with a larger, much nicer OLED screen — but no keyboard. By that point I had come around to the coolness of the virtual keyboard on an all-touch display, and thanks to autofill and predictive text suggestions, it was actually faster than typing on my old G1.
Google’s first Android phone was a great phone, period. It sparked my allegiance to Android and paved the way for even bigger, better phones like the Vibrant. It’s Google’s openness that has given Samsung the latitude to create geeky, capable phones like the Galaxy Note 9.
I’ll probably never want a physical phone keyboard again, but thanks to the T-Mobile G1’s strong start, I’ll probably never want an iPhone either.