India Gets a Taste of Android Magic

When Google announced that it was working on an open source OS for cell phones in 2007, the world promptly sat up and took notice. It was not that open source mobile operating systems had not been developed before, but the involvement of a company like Google made many see this venture in a whole new light. In November 2007, Google not only unveiled Android but also announced the formation of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) to develop open standards for mobile devices with the likes of Google, LG, Samsung, Intel and HTC on board. The open source mobile ball was well and truly rolling, powered by Android.

Needless to say, there was immense curiosity about the new operating system. Would it finally herald the arrival of open source software in a big way in the world of cell phones? Would it strike a blow against the hegemony of Nokia, Microsoft and RIM in the mobile OS space by offering powerful devices at a relatively lower price? The first Android device, the HTC G1, was released last year and while there were some mutterings about the device’s less-than-designer looks, no one could deny that the phone’s OS was a formidable one. Most significantly, Android represented one of the first times in tech history that the OS of a mobile phone had grabbed the headlines.  At the time of writing this article, no fewer than three phones running Android have been released and in each case, it has been Android rather than the phone’s specifications that have made the headlines.

And it’s no different in India. When HTC unveiled Magic with Airtel, it was not the phone’s processor, camera or touchscreen that dominated the launch but what was under its hood—Android. Needless to say, we promptly stood in line for a device and when we got one, put it through its paces quite thoroughly.

It’s got the looks and specs too!

The first thing that struck us when we clapped eyes on the Magic was how good the device looked. Unlike the slightly clunky G1, with its visible hinges for the slide out QWERTY keyboard, the Magic is a sleek, all-touch device (it has no physical keyboard). Our model was black and had a maroon band running along its sides. Although the build of the device is almost totally plastic, it did not look ‘cheap’ or fragile. Like the G1, the Magic does have a ‘chin’ at the lower end, but it did not stick out as much as in its predecessor. Its proportions of 113 x 55.56 x 13.65 mm make it very pocket-friendly and at around 113 grams, it is on the lighter side (the iPhone 3G weighs 133 grams).

Dominating the device is a 3.2 inch (8.1 cm), 65,000 colour touchscreen (320 x 480 resolution), below which lies a trackball and six keys—Call receive, Call end, Menu, Home, Back and most interesting of all, Search (allowing you to access the search function directly). Yes, that may sound a lot in these minimalistic days when screens are followed by two or three buttons at the most, but the keys are well laid out and even with our big fingers, we never really hit the wrong key. The back of the phone is plain except for the 3.2 mega-pixel camera embedded in a small steel panel. We also noticed that unlike the G1, which had the name ‘Google’ on the back, this phone came with the name ‘HTC’, but more of that later.

Removing the back reveals a healthy 1340 mAh battery, the slots for the SIM card and the MicroSD expansion card. The sides are totally plain, barring the volume control keys on the left. No, there is no dedicated camera button, but we honestly did not miss it much. And there is no stylus either—this device is totally finger-driven. The hardware inside is pretty impressive too. The device comes with GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and about 288 MB of onboard memory (a bit less in these days of GB storage, but then it can be expanded with a 2GB microSD card that comes with the pack). Incidentally, the battery lasted us a day and a half of calling, browsing and snapping—excellent for a touchscreen device and streets ahead of the iPhone or even the BlackBerry Storm!

All in all, the Magic is not going to make users drool like the RAZR did, yet remains very flauntable nevertheless. Definitely one of the better-looking touchscreen phones in the market.  And one that performs too—the camera takes decent pictures, multimedia is handled ably, and the call reception quality is just fine, if a bit on the quiet side.

A terrific interface!

If the Magic looks good switched off, it acquires an entirely new dimension when you hit the ‘On’ switch (the Call end button does the job). The screen is brilliant and as it is capacitive rather resistive, its response is excellent—the best thing we have seen this side of the iPhone. You will need to just touch the screen lightly in most cases to get a response. Talking of responses, the device comes with haptic feedback, allowing you to feel a slight vibration every time you touch an icon or a button on-screen. We turned it off after a while but it can be handy for those new to touchscreens.

The interface is based on version 1.5 of Android, also known as Cupcake. The homescreen seems pretty stark to start off, with the huge clock at the top and four icons below, but there is a whole lot of magic (pun intended) lying beneath it. You can customise the home screen (which spans three screens that slide to either side) by simply dragging and dropping items from the menu. You can place an item just about anywhere (and we mean anywhere) on the homescreen—there are no restrictions at all. And if you don’t like an item, just keep it pressed and then drag it into the handy rubbish bin that appears on the bottom of the screen. Incidentally, you can access the menu by either hitting the Menu button or sliding up the bar at the bottom of the homescreen—we found the latter to be much more fun.  You can get back to the homescreen at any time by hitting the Home button or to the previous screen by pressing (you guessed it) the Back button.

All of which makes the HTC Magic perhaps one of the most intuitive touchscreen devices we have come across. The icons in the menu are large enough to be pressed by your finger, while texting and e-mailing addicts will be delighted to know that the onscreen QWERTY keypad is a treat in landscape as well as portrait mode, with an excellent predictive text facility to boot.

The multi-touch factor
Multi-touch has become a bit of a rage these days, thanks to Apple’s iPhone. In simple terms, this means the ability of a device to respond to more than one finger placed on the screen at the same time.
Conventional touchscreen devices recognise only only one finger—so if you were to place two fingers on, say, a HTC Diamond 2’s screen, it would recognise only one of them and respond to it.
Multi-touch does come with its advantages—it allows the famous “pinch your fingers to zoom in or out” that is an integral part of the iPhone, and it also adds a whole new dimenson to playing games on the handset. However, so far, only two other cellphone manufacturers have followed Apple’s example in this field (LG and Palm), as many of them reckon that multi-touch is more of a feel-good factor rather than a very practical one, given the hardware and software costs that will be incurred.
Interestingly, Android has support for multi-touch but so far none of the devices released on the platform have this feature.

Terrific browser, great notification bar…

The phone comes with the standard smartphone software. There is a contacts manager, a calendar, an e-mail client, a document reader (QuickOffice) and other software, but the application that just leapt out and grabbed our attention was the browser. When it comes to browsing the Internet, we had been under the impression that Safari on the iPhone and Opera Mobile on Windows Mobile were as good as they get. Well, the Magic made us change our minds. The Internet browser on the device is very powerful and renders pages at a decent speed while giving one far more control over the content—you can tweak just about any setting, from Javascript and Google Gears to images, with minimum fuss. And yes, Web pages do look gorgeous on that large touchscreen. True, there is no support for Flash yet, but apart from that, we have no hesitation in putting the browser alongside Safari and Opera Mobile.

Yet, even the browser is overshadowed by the excellent notification bar that runs on top of the screen, which alerts you about new e-mails and text messages that have come in. It makes the SMS/e-mail preview feature on some Nokia devices look frankly shabby. It allows you to get information about new text messages and e-mails in the most unobtrusive way we have ever seen on any mobile device, making it pretty much the killer app for corporate users fed up of loud push e-mail alerts! And no, it does not slow down the device at all. In fact, whatever one may accuse the HTC Magic of, it is certainly not lack of speed—even when we were running four to five applications at the same time, it showed no indication of slowing down.

…but no Android Market!

However, what is missing, catches the eye. The version of HTC Magic released in India does not come with Android Market, that vast reservoir of applications and software for Android phones. And this is because the version of Android running on the device has been tweaked by HTC and is not the official one made by Google—and that is the reason why the back of the device has ‘HTC’ rather than ‘Google’ written on it.

The absence of Market is a huge blow to the device as it totally restricts what users can download on to it. Right now, HTC and Airtel have placed five free applications such as weather and stock monitors on the device, but if you are looking for new software, the door is, alas, closed. Even a number of Google’s own applications—the Gmail app and Google Maps  – are not pre-installed and worse, cannot be installed on the phone. Unlike versions of the device in others markets that also lacked access to Android Market but had other application download websites, the Indian device is largely restricted to what comes on it. Ironically, the phone comes with no mapping solution on it, so the GPS in it is largely restricted to spotting your location for other apps and generating appropriate content. A sad waste!

This might change in the coming days, as Ajay Sharma, country head, HTC India, reveals: “We are proactively working on making the Android Market available on HTC’s Android devices in India.” However, we cannot help but feel that a golden chance has been missed.

A staggering price tag

As if the absence of the Android Market was not a big enough blow, the price tag of the device has come as a shock to many people. At Rs 29,990, the HTC Magic has been put in a category that is alongside the iPhone 3G and even above HTC’s own Touch Diamond 2 (which boasts significantly superior specs), not to mention several Nokia, Samsung and BlackBerry smartphones. “Pricing depends upon a lot of factors apart from the operating system. We strive to price devices so that they offer value for money for our customers and justify the price tag that they carry. I think the HTC Magic certainly delivers on these counts,” says Sharma, but a number of industry observers are not convinced that a device with relatively modest specifications and an open source operating system should be costing this much.

To make a comparison, HTC’s own Touch Diamond 2 is priced at around Rs 29,500 and comes with a 5.0-megapixel camera and runs on Windows Mobile 6.1. Nokia’s own flagship device, the N97, is available in the market for around Rs 33,000 and has a bigger touchscreen, a slide out QWERTY keypad, 32 GB onboard storage and a 5.0 mega-pixel camera. Samsung’s Omnia is available for around Rs 26,000 and offers more storage and a better camera with Windows Mobile. Vinay Goel, country head, products, Google India, diplomatically stated that HTC must have had good reasons for its pricing of the HTC Magic, but added that phones running on operating systems like Android should logically be cheaper than their counterparts with similar specifications. “It is not just because the OS is free, but also the fact that as a phone handset manufacturer, I do not have to necessarily write the device drivers for every component on my phone—they are all open source. So I save a lot on development costs. I do not have to go out and create a developer eco-system for this phone—it comes for free. There are so many things that come for free with this that a lot of the costs saved should, I think, be passed on to the user,” he points out.

In his opinion, the best price point for a smartphone in a country like India is in the Rs 10,000-15,000 bracket—almost half that of the HTC Magic.

A missed opportunity?

It might sound harsh to say so, but given the absence of Android Market (at the time of writing, it still had not been made available for India’s HTC Magic users) and the high price tag, the HTC Magic represents a missed opportunity for open source mobile OS in India. The very fact that one cannot at present download any applications to it, makes it inferior even to a run-of-the-mill Java phone on to which one can at least install some basic applications and games.

Even if it does get patched up to include access to the Android Market, it is doubtful whether the price-conscious Indian consumer will cough up close to Rs 30,000 for a device that, for all its excellent performance, still comes with relatively modest specifications. After all, even the iPhone struggled to make a dent in the official Indian market, although it raised a storm in the grey one, where it was priced considerably lower.

Mind you, it would be premature to write off Android or even the HTC Magic. Industry observers point out that handset prices tend to decline dramatically after their launch, and if the price of the HTC Magic were to slip to the more competitive Rs 22,000-25,000 range and HTC were to make Android Market (or an alternative download location) accessible on it, users might just start taking it more seriously. After all, it does have some very impressive hardware in combination with an excellent interface. Even if prices do not decline, there is every indication that the HTC Magic is just the first of the wave of Android phones that will hit India in the coming months, many of which will be at lower price points.

India’s first taste of Android might not have been Magical (pun intended) but Google’s mobile OS will definitely cast a spell in the days to come.

Android: The developer speak
As it is open source, Android is supposed to be a mobile application developer’s dream. Ilya A. Eliashevsky, product manager, DataViz (developers of Road Sync and Documents to Go), has so far been impressed by Android and feels that the fact that the OS is open source makes application development faster for it. “The open source concept is slightly new to our efforts and we are currently in the process of determining how to best leverage its full potential. One example where we quickly realised the benefit was when we recently used code from the open source community to develop a RoadSync Calendar application on Android. In this case, we were able to dramatically reduce our development costs and more quickly provide consumers a feature rich solution that had previously taken much longer to develop on other platforms. I think the same speed to market and lower cost concepts hold true for open source across the entire mobile food chain — from OS providers, to device manufactures, to operators and developers,” he says.
The ‘open’ness of Android also appeals to David Storey, developer relations, Opera, developers of the Opera Mobile and Opera Mini browsers. “We have great respect for the open source movement and our products run on various open source platforms. If websites and browsers are created based on open standards, you get an ideal environment for innovation on all platforms and devices, including mobiles,” he says. However, he feels that Android will represent a good business opportunity when more devices come out and are adopted by users.

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