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On Call: Welcoming the G1

The T-Mobile G1 may not be perfect, but I'm still excited about what it promises.

The T-Mobile G1 is more than just a phone. Corinne Schulze/CNET Networks

By now, you might have read Bonnie Cha and Nicole Lee's review of the T-Mobile G1, which goes on sale Wednesday. As one of the most anticipated cell phones of the year, the G1 had me on the edge of my seat the moment T-Mobile announced it. I wasn't part of the formal CNET review, but I relished the opportunity to get some one-on-one time with the device.

As Bonnie and Nicole rightfully point out, the G1's design isn't the most inspiring, and it lacks some needed features, but I still applaud HTC and T-Mobile for taking this step. Though it isn't perfect, and I can't think of a phone that is, the G1 is a great start on a new way to think about the mobile industry. It is much more than just another phone; the G1's real appeal lies in its promise of an open-source device that puts control in the hands of users. Whether the G1 will really deliver on that promise remains to be seen, but I think it has a lot of potential to do so.

The "walled garden" is a concept you hear a lot in the cell phone world. Basically, it describes an environment where one party controls every aspect of the user experience, from the handset to the service to the applications. For much of the mobile phone industry's life in the United States, that party has been the carrier. Yet, ever since the iPhone burst onto the scene 15 months ago, that concept has begun to change.

Compared with other carriers and manufacturers, AT&T has taken a backseat in its relationship with Apple. While the carrier undoubtedly had a voice in the iPhone's development, Fred Volgestein pointed out in Wired earlier this year, that Apple dictated what the iPhone would look like and what it would offer, rather than the other way around. While the result remained a "walled garden" experience--Apple makes the device, operates the music store, and controls who can offer applications--it is a walled garden of a different stripe. In contrast, AT&T doesn't have a say in the third-party applications. It's not a gatekeeper but a "dumb pipe" whose only job is to serve as a conduit for the iPhone and Apple's services. Some in the carrier world are no doubt wringing their hands over becoming dumb pipes, but I think customers benefit. And the G1 could break down that wall even further.

The G1 runs the Android operating system developed by Google and the Open Handset Alliance. Unlike other cell phone operating systems, Android is completely open source (the full source code became available Tuesday). That's a big change from Palm, Windows Mobile, Apple, and even Symbian. With the G1, however, users and developers get the whole caboodle.

The Android application store is another game changer. While Apple strictly controls the iTunes App Store, Google is taking a more hands-off approach. Developers have to apply to join the community and sign a service agreement, but once you're in, you're in. And once you get approved, you can upload applications at will. Fellow community members, rather that Google, then take over. The members can dictate which applications warrant inspection by flagging the content that they think is inappropriate. If something is flagged, Google will review it and will remove it only if it malicious. Pretty nice.

Though there's more to the story, it's clear that the G1 offers a new model for the industry. The handset offers an open-source operating system, multiple members are involved (don't forget Amazon runs the music store), and no one entity, be it Google, HTC, or T-Mobile has sole control over the experience. Granted, I may be romanticizing it just a bit, and only time will tell just how the user experience will be, but the G1 beats ever other cell phone I've seen in giving customers power over the device. I doubt the cell phone will ever be as free as a computer--the carrier always will have some say in how you can use it--but the G1 gives us hope. And that is why it warrants our attention.