Taking the Android Plunge

I picked up a G1 yesterday. It was a big step for me, because I’ve never really wanted a mobile phone that does more than make phone calls (and text messaging, since my teenagers seem to have lost the ability to communicate by any other means). When I was at Juniper, my boss and I fought a running battle for years: He wanted me to carry a Blackberry, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near that accessible.

I’ve had my beloved Motorola RAZR for ages. A thin, light little thing that sits unobtrusively in my pocket and makes no impositions on my life unless someone calls – or unless one of my teenagers sends me a text telling me what a great Dad I am, which generally means he or she needs money.

Sadly, my little silver friend was entering a state of advanced decrepitude: Scarred case, pitted and peeling screen, and a tendency of late to fall into boot loader mode and not be able to get up again. I’d look at it and think of Indiana Jones saying, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”

It was time to say goodbye.

I was sure I would just go get a new RAZR, but with all the recent hoopla I figured I should at least consider a smartphone.

I’m a devoted MAC user, so you’d think I’d be drawn to the iPhone. It’s thin and light, and of course there’s that very cool screen. But there are several features, or rather lack of features, which have always made the iPhone underwhelming in my view. Perhaps the biggest negative, however, was that I’d have to change carriers if I went with the iPhone. I’ve been a T-Mobile customer for years, have always found their customer support people friendly and helpful, and so T-Mobile has a little stack of customer loyalty credits built up.

The T-Mobile G1 isn’t sleek or pretty like the iPhone, but it runs Google Android. My inner geek stirred. An open-source operating system on a mobile handset? Ooooh! Built on a Linux kernel? Aaaaah!

I walked into the T-Mobile store telling myself that I was going to get another RAZR, but figuring I would give the G1 a look-see. Just to be fair. I found myself balancing the G1 in one hand and the RAZR in the other, telling myself that while yes, the G1 was big and ugly, it wasn’t that much bigger or heavier than the RAZR. Self-delusion, fueled by geek lust, had kicked in. I bought the G1.

Three hours later, walking around with my new toy in my pocket, I knew that there had better be some really cool features to make up for my lying to myself about the G1’s size. It was neither light nor unobtrusive. In fact it was a little like having a big lump of mashed potatoes in my pocket. The thing was even warm. 

So I went to Android Market, did a little exploring, and downloaded a few free applications (very easy, just a few touches of the screen). An FTP front-end. A simple port scanner. An SSH client. A nice scientific calculator. An IP subnet calculator (although no networker worth his or her salt should ever need a subnet calculator).

I downloaded a telnet client, enabled the WiFi, telnetted to my lab and did some simple router configurations. While you wouldn’t want to do much configuring with the G1’s tiny QWERTY keyboard, the telnet and SSH clients could be very handy to network troubleshooters in a pinch.

One of the best things about MAC OS is that it’s FreeBSD under the hood; you can open a terminal window, get to a shell prompt, and do Unix-y things. Turns out that you can also do that with Android, which as I mentioned is Linux under the hood. I downloaded a terminal emulator that gets me to a shell prompt. This may be the most exciting feature of all. It’s also a little scary. I can enable telnetd, turn on WiFi, and then telnet from my laptop to the handset and get the root prompt without having to so much as enter a password. That’s very scary. I’ve read that there’s a fix for this either available or on its way, but it leaves me wondering how many other gaping security holes there might be.

I’m also disappointed that there does not appear to be IPv6 support. I’ve done just some preliminary searching about this, and it looks like the kernel can be upgraded for IPv6. Nevertheless, as I’ve stated on this blog before, an IP stack that doesn’t support IPv6 is not a modern IP stack.

I haven’t made up my mind yet about Android, but I’ve only played around with it for a few hours so far. Nevertheless, the potential is exciting.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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