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Google's first Android phone rivaled the iPhone like BlackBerry, Nokia never could

Looking back, it's clear that the T-Mobile G1 (aka HTC Dream) challenged Apple's iPhone from the very start.

Betsy Lyon/CNET

Google's first Android phone is officially 10 years old, which means that Android has been challenging Apple's iPhone and iOS platform for a solid decade. Looking back, it's hard to believe that the very first Android phone, the HTC Dream, called the T-Mobile G1 in the US, suffered such an ugly, clunky beginning. But even then, it was clear that this brand-new platform had the potential to eclipse Apple's iPhone in ways that the stalwart brands of the day -- BlackBerry, Palm, Nokia and Windows Mobile -- could not.

Google announced the HTC Dream on Sept. 23, 2008, a year after Apple's first-generation iPhone revolutionized what it meant to be a smartphone. While the iPhone's strength was in its clean, simple design and intuitive layout, the very first Android phone brought personality and the ability to customize your experience. Today, over 85 percent of all the world's phones run on Android.

It's a startling accomplishment when you consider that the T-Mobile G1/HTC Dream lacked the iPhone's breezy good looks and finesse. A swing-out physical keyboard frustrated us with flat keys; a fat, jutting chin got in the way of typing; basics like a virtual keyboard and headphone jack were nowhere to be found. But this thick, heavy handset left an indelible mark on the smartphone world, and helped bring us to where we are today.

The HTC Dream/T-Mobile G1 also had a few important features that the iPhone of the day -- the iPhone 3G, running "iPhone OS 2" -- lacked: Features like a better camera and copy/paste. The power of Google's platform. Most importantly, the G1 proved that a software company could back a successful cellular phone. Here's how this ugly duckling device made its mark.

This story originally published Sept. 23, 2018 and was most recently updated Sept. 25.

1. Proof that customization is king

The G1 immediately set itself apart from the first iPhone by allowing a deep ability to change and perfect how you used the phone. For the really ambitious that could mean writing their own apps. But for most people, tweaking the G1's home screen to their liking was a fine start and a core part of Android's identity. Between app launchers, icon packs, wallpapers, widgets and folders, what you saw didn't have to be what you got.

The iPhone later caught up -- now you can change the home screen background and rearrange apps into folders -- but the G1 showed that customization in smartphones mattered (and in a way that was far easier to use than Windows Mobile).

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It wasn't just individuals customizing their Android phones. Android's open platform also meant that smartphone makers could take the base Android OS and build on their own look with themes, launchers and even additional apps and features.

Of course, there was one drawback to an open system. Fragmentation, that elephant always lurking in Android's room, later became an obstacle to quick Android updates, especially as manufacturers had to tweak the updates to match their custom skins.

Consumer appetite for the kind of customization Android offered was evident from the very first G1, and is what helped make Android so successful today.

2. App market from the start

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The T-Mobile G1 looks retro by today's standards.

Angela Lang/CNET

The iTunes App Store debuted just a few months before the G1, but the HTC phone still scored a coup over Apple's 2007 smartphone debut by launching with its app ecosystem already in place. 

The Android Market (later to become Google Play) meant that G1 owners didn't have to wait to do more with their phones, whether it was play games, shop or just stay organized. Even than it was clear that apps were the future of phones, and G1 was ready.

The nature of the Android Market had its pros and cons. By adopting a looser vetting and approval process than the one Apple followed, Google's app store enabled a wider selection of apps and was friendlier to developers of all abilities. 

On the downside, less quality control meant you were more likely to bite into some app lemons, and apps didn't always conform to each Android update.

3. The G1 multiplied Google's power in the pocket

As the first Android device, the T-Mobile G1 allowed Google to make you even more dependent on its online tools.

The iPhone's strength was in working with other Apple hardware. The first iPhone was basically the most magical iPod that Apple had ever made, since it also placed calls and had apps you could also find on the Mac.

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Android brings Google to you wherever you are.

Angela Lang/CNET

Google took the opposite approach by focusing on the ecosystem of Google's already robust and constantly expanding software empire. Here, you had the power of Google Search in your pocket, plus Gmail and Google's terrific maps app. Yes, much of that was accessible on the iPhone as well -- Google Maps was the default iPhone mapping app until Apple created its own, initially far inferior Apple Maps in 2012 --  but with Android, it was all built-in and tightly integrated. If you already used Google tools, Android was a no-brainer.

For Google, it meant that you'd come to rely on Google products at home, at work and now everywhere in between the two.

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4. It set the precedent for multiple designs

remembering the first Google Android Phone: HTC T Mobile G1

G1, meet your descendant, the Galaxy Note.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Although the first Android phone had the QWERTY keyboard and lots of buttons, choice was always the plan. 

The G1's job was to show buyers how a "Google phone" would work, and to give app developers something they could sink their teeth into, so that the next Android phones started with a stronger foundation.

It wasn't long before the Android-curious were able to see phones from Motorola, Samsung, LG and even more devices from HTC. This small army of Androids marched out with different size screens, dimensions, camera capabilities -- you name it.

But without that first Android phone to plant the flag, and to test buyers' interest, we may have never seen the Motorola Droid, which was marketed as a true iPhone alternative; the HTC Evo 4G (first 4G phone in the US); the first Samsung Galaxy Note with its S Pen; or the Google Pixel 3 we're expecting to see on Oct. 9.

5. HTC's magic paved the way for Pixel

Before the T-Mobile G1, HTC was a smallish Taiwanese manufacturer striving to become a global brand among giants like Samsung and Motorola. 

The G1 gave HTC the opportunity to break out and the start of a firm relationship between the company and Google. Next came the Google Ion/T-Mobile MyTouch 3G (the second Android phone), the HTC Hero (the first CDMA Android handset) and the HTC Droid Eris (the first Android phone with pinch-to-zoom).

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The G1 next to the Google Pixel 2.

Josh Miller/CNET

But it was really with the Nexus One in 2010 that HTC hit its Android stride. A "pure" Android phone, it received Android updates quickly and delivered a welcome alternative to the manufacturer skins that had become common. Since then, HTC continued to produce some of the best Android devices, like first Pixel phone in 2016. This year Google even paid $1.1 billion to hire HTC engineers for whatever comes next.

6. A true Apple rival became the only Apple rival

Perhaps the most significant effect of the HTC Dream/T-Mobile G1 was its role as a fierce, iPhone rival. Google and Apple -- headquartered just 11 miles away from each other in Silicon Valley -- were two of the most powerful and exciting tech companies in the world.

remembering the first Google Android Phone: HTC T Mobile G1

Just look at that chin.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple and Google were also brand new entrants into an already-crowded phone space, populated by BlackBerry, Nokia (Symbian OS) and Windows Mobile devices on the "smart" end and flip or candybar phones on the low-end. ("Feature phones" were a middle layer entirely.)

The iPhone's popularity exploded, and the veteran platforms couldn't keep up. But then Android came along. It was fresh, it was new, and it had the might of Google's considerable resources to counter Apple as a phone platform of the future.

The T-Mobile G1 also pushed Apple to do better, bringing feature parity to later iPhones, like a better camera, maps with turn-by-turn directions and...copy/paste. Google was so successful, that Android today isn't doesn't just compete with the iPhone -- it's the only iPhone rival left.

And it all started with that funny little phone.

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