Verizon's Fascinate reaches new lows among smartphones run amok

Sunday, September 26, 2010; G3

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.

Don't expect liberation from Google. The company gave up on the Nexus One, its attempt to sell an Android phone independently of carriers.

And although Verizon's Fascinate seems to have exceeded whatever rules govern the use of the Google logo, the company imposes few requirements on access to Android Market - the one part of Android it controls. A "Compatibility Definition" file allows phone vendors to write their own replacements for all of its 16 defined core applications.

When Google wrote this document, it apparently forgot that the wireless carriers have no taste.

What about simply leaning on these firms? Although Google has no problem throwing its weight around in some areas - the location-service provider Skyhook Wireless is suing the company for forcing carriers to drop its own offering - it thinks it would be unfair to push carriers to sell clean versions of their Android phones. Chief executive Eric Schmidt recently told reporters that such a move would violate "the principle of open source."

But if Google chooses to be spineless, some of its users have not. Android's open-source roots - it's based on the Linux operating system- made it easy for Android experts to figure out how to unlock, or "root," their phones and then remove unwanted apps. This step has gotten a little simpler over time, as I discovered when I rooted an Android phone a few days ago.

Android developers have since moved on to cooking up their own "ROMs," bundles of the core Android system and related applications. Adventurous users can use this to replace all of their phones' existing software - often gaining a healthy performance improvement in the process.

These things aren't easy to do and will void a phone's warranty. But that might seem a fair price to be free of a marketing department's idea of how your phone should work.

It's wonderful that Android's open-source core has let users take action. It's pathetic that the arrogance of the carriers has left them no other option.

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