When It Comes to Android, Software Makes The Difference — T-Mobile Agrees

In the growing sea of Android (s goog) smartphones, how does a carrier differentiate a new handset from all the rest? Upgraded hardware features are one method, but with the exception of radically new handset designs, most upgrades are minor bumps from prior generations. Besides, most phones are designed by handset makers and then rebadged for various markets and carriers. That leaves software as the most potent way to stand out from the crowd — and the one T-Mobile employs with the new myTouch 3G Slide handset.

myTouch 3G Slide hardware upgrades
  • Larger, 3.4-inch display
  • 5 megapixel camera with LED flash
  • 4-row, slide-out QWERTY keyboard
  • optical trackpad
  • higher capacity battery

To be sure, there are the expected hardware upgrades from the prior myTouch 3G model, which is built by HTC. But it’s the software that truly makes this handset different from other Android smartphones. I noticed the tweaks immediately after powering up the device, which I’ve been using for a few weeks.

The user interface immediately brought to mind that of the HTC Sense, which pretties up the stock Android environment. My gut was right — in a phone interview with T-Mobile’s development team, Mike Hendrick, director of mobile software development, explained that the heavily modified myTouch 3G Slide interface utilizes 45 different modified widgets, functions and elements of HTC Sense, from a themed notification bar to home screen shortcuts.

Aside from the customized interface, three main software features bring me a better user experience on the myTouch 3G Slide:

  • Faves Gallery — aggregates social status updates, email and instant messaging conversations for favorite contacts.
  • MyModes — changes the device theme/home screens based on time or location, something I wish every phone could do.
  • Genius button – activates speech-recognition features for message composition, web searches and voice calling.

T-Mobile tells me that its software investment in the myTouch 3G Slide — four times that of the development effort for the prior model — can be leveraged and reused in future devices. Working with HTC on the Sense customizations was one part of that investment, but the carrier’s development team also enlisted a new partner in the form of Nuance Mobile for the Genius button voice features.

I was most curious as to how the voice recognition works — after all, Android 2.1 natively supports voice functionality through Google’s own services. Mike Thompson, SVP and GM of Nuance (s nuan), said it offers a “hybrid architecture for voice recognition” that can work both locally and in the cloud – in other words, when a connection can’t be found with the 7.2 Mbps radio. Google’s solution, by contrast, requires a wireless connection to send a voice file and then quickly return the server-side text interpretation. Indeed, my testing of the Genius button and voice commands yielded results that were often better than those on my Google Nexus One. I particularly like the new Driving Mode, which can be turned on or off by voice and will offer to read aloud incoming messages as I drive around town.

Of course, one has to wonder if customized solutions like that used on the myTouch Slide 3G will help or hurt Google’s Android fragmentation issue (which it refuses to admit it has). Those familiar with Android won’t struggle to use T-Mobile’s new phone because the underlying operating system isn’t hidden away. And because the device runs on the recent Android 2.1 — 2.2 is a potential option once Google releases it to handset makers — it should work with most, if not all, third-party applications in the Android Market. I expect that other handsets using current versions of Android with effective but light user interface tweaking will differentiate without causing further fragmentation.

Currently available direct from T-Mobile for $179.99 with a contract, the myTouch 3G Slide represents the best of both Android and innovative software from T-Mobile. It may not have the speedy Snapdragon (s qcom) processor or high-resolution display I enjoy with my Nexus One, but after carrying the myTouch 3G Slide for a few weeks, I didn’t miss my faster handset as much as I’d expected to. As a long-time power user of smartphones, that’s a testament to T-Mobile’s development efforts on its newest phone — and portends that future handsets will leverage software to differentiate hardware.

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