Amid the iPhone 3G launch hysteria, we made a pronouncement that, looking back now long after the dust has settled, pretty well nailed it: forget hardware, it's code that counts. Code via the juggernaut that is the App Store, which allowed the iPhone to truly came into its own as a mobile platform.
Now, our first official look at T-Mobile's G1, the first Android-capable phone built by HTC, is less than 24 hours away, and the same adage holds true now more than ever. Android's openness puts the emphasis even more squarely on the code this platform will run, making the hardware almost an afterthought. And while it's still quite early in the game and things won't really kick up until the G1 becomes available sometime in October, the Android Market is already looking like an equally if not more vibrant place for great apps for your phone.
One of the main positive points in our Android preview guide was that Android will likely be home to the best direct tie-ins to Google's web apps like Maps, Docs, and Gmail, of any device around. And not only will they shine individually (remember's Apple's proud claims of the iPhone's custom Google Maps integration?), each Google service is set up as an open API within Android, meaning they're all available for mashing up with any other type of data imaginable in third party applications, effectively allowing developers to easily convert awesome Google service hybrids (like Beer Mapping, one of my favourites) into mobile apps.
Unsurprisingly, Maps integrations are the main focus being taken by the early wave of Android Apps, many of which were written in response to the Android Developer's challenge. Throw in location awareness via GPS or cell towers (another Android core service), and we've got ourselves the ingredients for some truly next-level stuff.
Enkin: When many people envisioned a location-aware future for mobile tech, they were probably dreaming up something like Enkin. If you can last through the somewhat brutal video here, you'll see some amazing potential: Enkin is basically a visualisation framework for location information which can place locations on a two-dimensional map, a quasi-three-dimensional Google Earth type view, and coolest of all, overlay them onto the view streaming live out of your phone's camera. It uses GPS and accelerometers to sense exactly which direction the camera pointing, giving you an annotated view of the real world. You can add your own placemarkers or draw them in from the internet.
Locale: Borne from an MIT class specifically for writing Android apps (and winner of a $US275,000 first prize from the Android dev challenge), Locale lets you define your most frequented places on a map and set your phone to respond to those places in a number of different ways. While the prototype is mostly focused on phone settings (like switching to silent when you're in the office or at a movie theater), these kinds of frameworks can be expanded infinitely. Home automation software could be programmed to turn on the lights (or start cooking your breakfast, Pee-Wee Herrman style) once you're a few blocks away from your home, for instance. It takes Bluetooth proximity to a whole new level, one that's not dependent on the limited proximity to another device but only your actual real-world location independent of any other variables.
GeoLife: In a similar vein is GeoLife, a location-aware to-do list. You can pair actions on your list to locations (or types of locations) to get a reminder to buy milk when you're near a grocery store.
Ecorio: Using GPS, Ecorio runs in the background (another edge Android has over the iPhone) and estimates the carbon output of your day's journeys. Once it learns your habits, it can then suggest public trans or carpooling alternatives. Another $US275,000 first prize winner.
Cab4me: Takes your current location and feeds it into a database of nation-wide cab companies, allowing you to order a cab pickup instantly with your current locations. Google Maps overlays also show areas of cities where you're likely to hail a cab off the street.
BioWallet: Not all of the innovative apps are map based. BioWallet uses your phone's camera as an iris scanner to lock down sensitive information like account numbers and passwords on your phone, or even the phone itself. Handwriting-based IDs can also be implemented, all processed on external servers and sent back to your phone with a pass/fail reading.
Teradesk e-Storage: We love Air Share on the iPhone, and e-Storage looks to provide many similar services, with file versioning and Google Docs integration (one of the first of many G-Docs tie-ins, surely).
True, some of these apps could seemingly be just as at home in the iTunes App Store and on other platforms (many mobile OS's have some iteration of a barcode reader, for instance). But what has the potential to set Android apart though is its open source foundation; with the support of the open-source development community—one of the largest and most important driving forces of innovation in computers and software throughout history—Android could bl ast open mobile platforms even further than the iPhone has or could. Especially when you consider the core open-source projects that have shaped the internet since the beginning—Apache, MySQL, PHP, ssh, and countless others—making it onto phones in a core and unified way. Despite early SDK kinks, we could be seeing some exciting stuff in the next few months.
For a few of the other sides to the Android coin, be sure to check out our guide to five things both good and bad about Android. And if you've seen any other embryonic pre-release Android apps that look exciting, tell us in our new-and-improved threaded comments.