T-Mobile introduced the first Google Android phone this week. This long anticipated new platform combines elements of the iPhone (touch screen) and the Blackberry (pull out keyboard). Since I began researching mobile technology for the “Future of Mobile Travel” special report from PhoCusWright, I have been saying that the iPhone is a game changer. This message became more real to me as I purchased an iPhone earlier this month. Like any device it has its pluses and minuses. The same is true with the new Google Android platform. Both of these phones are shifts in the way people view their mobile device. Here’s my brief take on the two devices and how they will impact the travel experience:
1) The iPhone – The most exciting part of the iPhone is not the phone itself but the combination of the phone’s capability and the large number of inexpensive apps available through the Apple App store. Though downloading apps is nothing new, bypassing the “deck” of the mobile carrier presents a more intuitive, flexible and direct environment to load applications. There are currently 175 apps listed in the travel category and another 121 apps listed in the navigation category. The simple concept of locating yourself though GPS and looking at your immediate surroundings for restaurants, shopping or movie theatres is made simple by apps such as “Nearby” or “Where To”. Surprisingly few travel companies with the exception of the online folks such as Travelocity or TripIt have released iPhone specific apps (though a lot more are on the way). Once travel companies start realizing the ease of distribution available to iPhone users I anticipate many more traditional brands populating the travel category. The iPhone is a mediocre email device particularly for those Blackberry thumb users who can type long letters rapidly from the phone. The email application works fine for me as I normally wait to respond (unless it is an urgent message) until I power up my laptop or desktop. I had no trouble connecting the iPhone to my MS Outlook. The Web browser is another strong element, but even with the larger screen and ability to expand using the two finger pinch, browsing on the iPhone is much improved from other devices but NOT a replacement for the Web. Our research has uncovered the fact that many travel companies are simply porting their current Web pages onto mobile devices and even with the iPhone’s improved graphics, booking travel on the mobile Web browser can be challenging. The other approach of downloaded apps seems to be a much preferred way to penetrate the iPhone market. A strength that Apple has verses Google is the control of the hardware and software. The hardware control includes the firmware (software that is embedded on the hardware) giving greater consistent performance. The message here is simple, all travel companies should develop applications for the iPhone.
2) The T-Mobile G-Phone wants to be both a Blackberry and an iPhone. Surprisingly, currently the T-Mobile version only connects up with Gmail and in fact you need to have a Gmail account to use the G-phone. No doubt Microsoft Exchange may become a future capability, but until it does the G-Phone cannot replace the Blackberry. I will hold off my full evaluation of the device until I actually see the physical phone. My sense is that the Google Android platform can match the iPhone look and feel and simplicity of Web browsing. How apps are created and distributed will be a key element of the success. According to Strategy Analytics, the Android mobile operating system will account for 4 percent of all fourth quarter smartphone sales in the U.S., a small % but likely to grow. If the Android operating system spreads quickly and if developers gravitate to the application development environment, the same ease of use of downloading apps for the Android powered systems may further cement this process as the preferred delivery of travel specific apps, provided a central store is created. If the carriers remain in control your ability to download apps may be limited by the traditional control the carriers have put on new app distribution. The lack of control over the firmware may be an Achilles heal for the G-phone but it is too early to determine if the need to work with a variety of firmware is truly a market inhibiting problem.