Following in the footsteps of the iPhone, Google's Android seeks to do Apple one better by completely opening up its mobile platform, and by making it available for free to all handset makers and mobile network operators. The first Android phone, the cunningly named T-Mobile G1, arrives this month. And while it may be a while before we fully understand the impact that an open platform will have on the mobile market, make no mistake: Android is now a first-class player in this crucial industry, taking its place alongside Windows Mobile, Blackberry, and iPhone.

I don't have a G1 and it's unclear what level of coverage I'll be able to provide to this device right away. But thanks to an online emulator, it's possible to sample what the device will offer and see what the first generation Android platform is all about. From a mile-high view, Android offers a lot of promise. The UI isn't as sleek or refined as that of the iPhone (what is?) but it's far more extensible and malleable, and that's going to appeal to a lot of people. My suspicion is that Android sales will soon overtake those of the iPhone. This is a big deal.

Here's what we can see so far.

Home screen

The Android desktop is decidedly unlike the rigidly grid-like iPhone home screen, and in fact more closely resembles a PC desktop than any other mobile device. You can arrange application shortcuts willy-nilly on this screen, as you can with a PC desktop, and a slide-out drawer provides Start Menu-like access to all installed applications.

When you click the phone's Menu button, a grid-like menu pops up on the bottom of the screen. This is true of the home screen, as seen below, but also for all Android applications. In the case of the home screen, the options seen are system-wide.

Google Search

Not surprisingly, Google Search is available right from the desktop. But like the similar iPhone application, Google Search on Android searches more than just the Web: It's like Google Desktop Search on the PC. Of course, Google services will be available via the Android Web browser as well.

Screen lock and Settings

Applications

Android comes with a surprising wealth of built-in applications. Yes, they're heavily geared towards Google solutions. But thanks to the open platform, third party applications should quickly outpace what's available on the iPhone, especially if you're interested in products and services that compete with what the OS's maker creates. So you can expect to see applications around Yahoo! and Microsoft services, not just Google.

Alarm Clock

Gmail

Chat

Note the built-in support for AIM, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger out of the box. It's not just Google.

Music

It's hard to tell from the emulator, but this one looks pretty bare-bones. Expect third parties to step up in a big way.

Phone functionality

SMS/messaging functionality

Final thoughts

Google's Android platform looks like it has what it takes to provide the first credible competition for the iPhone (though it should be noted that RIM's recently-announced Blackberry Storm also has some interesting advantages). The key here is Android's openness. While Apple is quick to prevent developers from selling or giving away iPhone applications that may compete in some way with anything it's doing, Google provides a better approach. Android is wide open, and can be extended and added to in ways we can only begin imagining. Yes, many iPhone applications are first rate, and I would argue that those apps are the primary reason for considering that device. But my expectation is that the Android will surpass Apple in this area very quickly. Developers are sure to embrace the possibilities of true openness.

As is often the case with new technology, it may be a while before the promise of Android is realized. But then, it's sure to happen more quickly than it did with the iPhone, which even now suffers from issues that were readily apparently when the first version debuted a year and a half ago. That's the problem with a single provider: Users are beholden to Apple, which may or may not be interested in fixing the issues you're having. With Android, this will never be the case. And that alone makes this platform worth watching.