Android 2.0 Makes The Phone
The first phone to use Version 2.0 of Google's Android mobile operating system hit the shelves over the weekend in the form of the Motorola Droid, being peddled by Verizon Wireless. Android, as usual, wowed customers with a wide variety of new and exciting features — the handset housing it, however, did not.
If one wanted a clue as to what was to come, a quick look at the results of Verizon's early openings on Friday would have provided it. Stores opened as early as 7:00 AM in some locations, while the company's flagship outlet in New York held a two-hour early offering in the early morning hours. According to reports, the early opening found some 100 customers in line — a shadow of the numbers drawn by Apple's iPhone — while stores in Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston said to have drawn between 15 and 20. "Long lines forming outside are flashy. But it's not really the goal" was the company's best effort at covering its embarrassment. Apparently the iPhone killer forgot to eat its Wheaties.
The lack of lines was hardly the only disappointment, however. According to multiple sources, customers and reviewers alike were turned off by the phone's size and weight, which were said to be noticeably greater than other smartphones. Keyboards are always a key feature of any smartphone, and though the Droid offers the oft-overlooked physical keyboard, it's design leaves more than a little to be desired. The keys are flat, and don't span the full width of the phone, making them difficult to use, regardless of the size of the user's fingers — one reviewer described it as more difficult to use than his Blackberry's smaller keyboard.
The handset's other hardware left more than one user under-awed. Though the touch screen is said to be responsive and easy to use, other components — including the accelerometer — are not, with the built in 5.0 megapixel camera a particular disappointment. While it offers high-quality video, both recording and playback, it's ability to take photos is said to be severely compromised, despite advanced photo controls. Indoor photos have been described as grainy, while the built in flash "tended to blow out details and wash out color." Positives in the device's hardware include 270 hours of standby and 385 minutes of talk, Bluetooth 2.1 and Wifi, and 256MB of in-house memory with an Arm Cortex 550mHz A8 processor along with an included 16GM microSD.
The vast majority of what was liked about the Droid had little to do with Motorola or Verizon. The star of the show was the Open Source component, Google's Android 2.0. The feature getting the most ink is Google Maps Navigation, a turn-by-turn GPS-style app that offers spoken directions and Google's Street View to provide a visual link to one's surroundings. The built-in browser is described as "snappy" and is said to provide excellent playback of high-def video — tested on YouTube, of course. It also allows for multiple-email management and provides Quck Contact, a contact manager that combines email, SMS, IM, and other contacts into a central listing, allowing for easier communication with anyone on your list.
Unfortunately, Google's genius in Android is tempered by a grand dose of — less-than-genius. Along with their Droid — which Verizon is hawking at $199 after a $100 rebate — users will also find themselves on the buying end of a voice plan, the smallest of which is $39.99 per month for a meager 450 minutes. A data plan, unlimited at $29.99 a month, is also on the required list. All totaled, the privilege of using the $200 device will run to a minimum of $70 a month.
That doesn't even begin to touch on the fees for ditching the disappointing device. As of November 15, Verizon is rocketing it's early termination fee to $350 for smartphones, from the previous $175 — the fee decreases monthly by $10, reducing it to a pocket-change sized $110 for disappearing the month before contract expiration. All this just over a year after the company settled a class-action lawsuit by Californians over outrageous early termination fees — Verizon admitted no wrongdoing, but did cough up $21 million to keep its fees in place.
A Verizon spokesperson — predictably — defended the exorbitant penalty as fair and reasonable, citing the cost of phone components like chipsets, WiFi, and cameras, along with "premium HTML browsers...videoplayers; music players...operating systems such as BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm, Android..." We won't deny that proprietary operating systems come with a price tag — that's the cost of going proprietary — but Android? Exactly where in those standard features for the free Android operating system is Verizon out so much as a single penny? It would be like blaming the cost of running Debian for an increase in web host fees — bull.
Of course, what is a good press release if it doesn't add insult to injury, contributed by the final note:
The most important point is that Verizon Wireless customers do not have to have an ETF at all if they do not want to. ETFs allow customers to have it either way: They can have no ETF and pay full retail for their device. OR, they can get a greatly discounted device by having an ETF.
Somewhere in the distance there's a voice saying "Can you screw me now? Good!"
Speaking of insult, injury, and advertising, Verizon is finally in hot water over its attacks on AT&T and the iPhone. The ads in question, which compare its 3G coverage to that of AT&T, include maps showing both company's coverage. The map of AT&T — which admits it provides 3G in fewer areas than Verizon — shows areas without 3G coverage as white/blank. According to AT&T, this combined with the rest of the ad, conveys that the company has no service in the indicated areas at all — or, at least, lacks coverage sufficient for using a smartphone — despite most areas being covered by its 2.5G Edge network. The company filed suit in federal court last week, asking for an order requiring Verizon to stop running the ads until the court could determine whether the message conveyed by the ads is deceptive. AT&T reportedly is not seeking to permanently discontinue the ads, but rather to force Verizon to discontinue the misleading portions.
Verizon, meanwhile, released three new ads — not currently covered by the suit, but no doubt will be before long — with a Christmas theme, depicting the iPhone as a "misfit toy" due to AT&T's comparatively reduced 3G coverage. This will no doubt raise Apple's hackles — attacking AT&T's network is one thing, but characterizing one of the flagship products of a company, particularly one that takes its product image as seriously as Apple does, as a misfit toy is entirely another. Running roughshod over the orchard is a bad move in general — Apple is more sue-happy than SCO, albeit with infinitely better judgment — but is particularly so when rumor has it that a "world mode" iPhone is currently in the works for Verizon.
Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.
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