Google touches add value to Droid

I love it when big, rich technology companies start smacking each other around like robots in a Transformers movie, because you’ll generally find some pretty cool gadgets poking out of the wreckage.Here’s one of them now: the Droid, a new Motorola Inc. phone that uses the Android operating system developed by Internet search titan Google Inc. It’s the first Android phone to be offered by the nation’s largest cellular carrier, Verizon Wireless. The Droid goes on sale tomorrow for $199 after a $100 rebate, and with a two-year Verizon service contract.
No doubt you’ve heard of the Droid from one of its ever-present TV commercials. Most smartphone vendors have tiptoed past direct comparisons with Apple Inc.’s iPhone. But the Droid ads have taken dead aim, flatly declaring that the Droid is better. In some ways, it is.
Apple will survive the onslaught; the Droid, though excellent, is no iPhone slayer. But you might want to start digging a grave for makers of standalone navigation devices like TomTom and Garmin. Droid’s most remarkable feature, a fine turn-by-turn navigation system, matches up well against any of the standalone GPS units. And it’s free.
The Droid’s sleek, angular look is reminiscent of Motorola’s last big hit, the Razr phone. It’s got a big, bright touchscreen that serves as a virtual keyboard, but there’s a snap-out physical keyboard as well. Perhaps this was a mistake; the keyboard is easily the Droid’s worst feature, with flat, smooth buttons that offer no help at all to touch typists. The pushbuttons found on other Android phones are mostly replaced with touch-sensitive controls, but the Droid still can’t match the simplicity of the iPhone.
Apple claims there are about 100,000 of the specialty software programs called apps for the iPhone; only about 10,000 apps are available for Android phones. And lots of them are unreliable, or don’t work at all. Google makes it easier than Apple to produce and distribute Android apps, but this has resulted in a lot of lousy Android software.
Still, there are plenty of gems. These include handy “widget’’ programs that sit on the screen and constantly update themselves with news headlines, stock quotes, or weather reports. Widgets work because unlike the iPhone, the Droid can run two or three apps simultaneously.
Of course, it does an especially good job running Google software. Apple barred Google Voice software from the iPhone, perhaps because it enabled cut-rate phone calling and threatened AT&T’s profits. There’s no such limitation on the Droid; Google Voice works fine, and you can program the phone to use it for all your calls. There’s also a very good feature that lets you run Google searches with voice commands, like “How do I get to Cape Cod?
Which brings us to the Droid’s true killer app. It’s the first phone to use Google’s new navigation service, which the company eventually plans to make available to other brands of smartphone.
Lots of us presently pay $10 a month to our cellphone carriers to run phone-based navigation software. The Droid’s Google Maps Navigation program makes a fine alternative. Punch in the desired address or say it aloud. The screen displays a clear and colorful map, while the phone’s speaker delivers the instructions in a clear, though rather tinny voice. Unlike some cheesy nav systems, Google gives very precise instructions; not simply, “turn left,’’ but “turn left on Main Street.’’ Sometimes the spoken instructions were a little too precise - for instance, in Cambridge, it said: “turn right on J-period-F-period-Kennedy Street.’’ And occasionally, the directions were plain wrong. But such things happen with the best GPS systems, and Google’s a company full of fast learners.
Indeed, they’re learning to make their own maps. Until recently, Google bought its maps of the United States from TomTom subsidiary TeleAtlas, which has its US operation in Lebanon, N.H. But TomTom recently revealed that the deal with Google is off. Google has opted to produce its own maps of the United States, though continuing to rely on TomTom for map data for the rest of the world. Sustained by its vast Internet advertising revenues, Google can afford to collect huge quantities of geographical information, then merely give it all away.
Not so for TomTom or Garmin, which is why their stocks plummeted last week on news of the Google Maps Navigation system. During a visit to Cambridge yesterday, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt was unapologetic. “Google is a disruptor,’’ Schmidt said. “We would argue that this disruption has a very strong consumer benefit. . . . As long as we’re on the side of making consumers empowered, we’ll be fine.’’
TomTom spokeswoman Kaitlin Ambrogio told me her company will be fine as well. “We believe there are opportunities for all of us,’’ Ambrogio said. Indeed, TomTom might launch a hugely successful Web search company, make billions of dollars, and start giving away their maps. Pretty far-fetched, I admit. But it’s been done.Read More.....


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