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Verizon's Fascinate reaches new lows among smartphones run amok

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A "Google phone" hand-cuffed to Microsoft's Bing search engine sounds like a bad joke. But it's a real product, one for which Verizon Wireless charges $199.99.

This device, Samsung's Fascinate, is the latest - and the worst - example of an ugly trend among smartphones running Google's Android operating system.

Instead of being content to sell an attractive, open alternative to Apple' s iPhone, wireless carriers have decided they'd rather treat the screens of Android phones as billboard space to be sold to the highest bidder.

Anyone who's spent an hour on a new laptop deleting desktop shortcuts, uninstalling trial applications and peeling off stickers should know this concept. But while some PC manufacturers have realized that customers hate getting a computer full of "crapware," the carriers refuse to learn from their example - and on an Android phone, the effects are much worse.

The extra applications that a carrier installs not only clutter the screen, they also eat up precious system memory that would be better used on programs you actually want. And because carriers implant these add-ons in a protected area of the phone's storage, you can't uninstall them.

Carriers have abused their privileges to weld on such extras as $10/month navigation tools that duplicate what Google's own map software does for free; a movie player for a little-used online service from the newly bankrupt Blockbuster's; NASCAR and football applications; demos of various games; and advertisements for their services that eat up space in the notification bar at the top of the screen.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless all offer the same excuse: They're trying to make the phone "experience" better. But they fail to explain why they don't let customers decline this help.

With the Fascinate, however, Verizon has outdone them all. Not only does this slim device arrive with a cartload of Verizon apps bolted on, but its search button comes locked to Bing, and it leaves out Google Maps in favor of Microsoft's inferior alternative.

Your only warning of these dramatic changes is the absence of Google's logo from the box and the back of the phone.

A Verizon spokeswoman wrote that "by adding this option to our Android portfolio, we are giving customers more choice."

Still more "choice" will come later this year when the company (having already coaxed Skype into offering its Android Internet calling application only for Verizon users) launches its own, separate Android app store - even though there's already a well-stocked, open and compatible Android Market.

This arrogant control-freakery is what I feared when Google announced Android in 2007: Carriers have exploited Android's openness to treat their customers like their servants.

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