As much as Verizon Wireless has gotten a great deal of publication, love, and overall approval from smartphone lovers and geeks alike for the release of the Droid by Motorola and the subsequent releases of other powerful exclusive Android phones like the Droid Eris and Droid Incredible by HTC, prior to their releases, leaks, and announcements, Verizon Wireless was the carrier that people begrudgingly signed on to because the voice and data networks were robust and covered the majority of the country – business signed on so they could get their employees cheap BlackBerry phones, and if you wanted a smartphone your options were BlackBerry and Windows Mobile, all on horrible horrible devices – the rest of us either had to jump ship for another carrier that had good handsets and smartphones, or we had to deal with feature phones or simple handsets because we couldn’t give up the network.
I’m in that boat – I was ready to jump ship to AT&T at the end of my contract last year just because I wanted a smartphone and Verizon Wireleess’ selection was awful; and then something glorious happened. The Droid by Motorola was released, and to this day I consider it one of the best technology purchases I’ve ever made, and I haven’t considered leaving for AT&T, iPhone or no, since then. The combination of a solid Android phone that’s not loaded up with Verizon Wireless’ standard suite of bloatware that you find on their feature phones and their amazing network, and even though I still think the iPhone is a slightly better device than the Droid, the combination of the Droid and Verizon’s network simply overwhelm the combination of the iPhone and AT&T’s network.
The odd thing is that I don’t know that I’m not the only one here. So how did this happen? Google and Verizon Wireless are closer now than they’ve ever been, and both are dedicated and determined to working together on Android phones. So did Google ride to Verizon Wireless’ rescue and save their image from cementing as the stodgy, old carrier with cheap voice handsets but good call quality, bargain basement smartphones for individual users, and the only way to get any attention from them is to have a BlackBerry and be on a business plan? Here’s a hint: I think so, and let’s dive into why after the jump.
The first step to understanding what the world was like before there was a Droid on the market. There was a time when Verizon Wireless’ strongest smartphones were made by AudioVox, and if you wanted a smartphone your best bet for apps and features was to either get a BlackBerry and put your hopes in the hands of RIM (who, mind you, is still the number one smartphone manufacturer in the United States) or suffer through the experience of owning a Windows Mobile 6 device. Now, with RIM planning yet another major upgrade to the BlackBerry operating system (since the BlackBerry Storm and Storm 2 on Verizon Wireless were less than stellar successes although they’re both semi-solid devices) and Microsoft planning to get Windows Phone 7 onto the market at the end of the year, Verizon Wireless is poised to have a number of amazing devices on its network.
Still, back before the days of the Droid, people looking for smartphones had the choice of either springing for Blackberry or Windows Mobile, deciding to settle for a higher-end feature phone that would also play music like the LG Chocolate 2 or LG Envy. The only time Verizon Wireless was mentioned in the same breath as high-end, feature-rich smartphones was when people wished, hoped, and prayed for a CDMA-compatible iPhone to make its way to Verizon Wireless’ network (something that still persists to this day.)
Verizon Wireless was the carrier that everyone loved because of its network, not its technology, and technology writers and mobile phone fans alike hated on Verizon Wireless regularly for loading its devices up with bloatware, charging extra for services that are available on the Web for free like VZCast, and putting exorbitant prices on their music downloads — none of which I think has changed, honestly, but with the introduction of stronger handsets and a more hands-off approach, Verizon has managed to take the heat off of their higher-end users and the only folks who feel that burn anymore are VZW’s feature phone owners – primarily aimed at teens and pre-teens who either know better and will be upgrading soon or don’t know better and run up their parents’ phone bills.
The introduction of the iPhone and its exclusivity to AT&T changed everything though – we started to hear rumors that Verizon actually turned Apple away because they didn’t want to make the necessary changes to their network to support the iPhone and that AT&T was willing. Other, smaller carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile were agile enough to start releasing Android phones and Windows Mobile phones that could compete with the iPhone to some degree, even though none of them were remarkably successful in any way until the T-Mobile G1 running Android 1.6 was released. Verizon Wireless was stuck in the proverbial smartphone dark ages, unless you wanted a BlackBerry or you were in an enterprise that relied on BlackBerry devices. But even then, it was clear: the iPhone, the G1, and the Palm Pre’s respective successes, even as metered as they were, proved that we all wanted better phones.
Then we heard that the veneer of Verizon’s extremely lengthy and slow technology approval process was cracking, and Verizon Wireless was committing themselves to bringing new technology to their store shelves faster. Then we heard about a new touch-screen BlackBerry phone that would take on the iPhone: the BlackBerry Storm. Before it was released, people were calling it an “iPhone Killer,” and even after it was launched, the BlackBerry faithful called it as much, and defended its many flaws, claiming it could do everything an iPhone did and then some – the problem was that even though there were serious hardware flaws that you could overlook in a best case scanario, Apple had a leg up on what was most important with most smartphone users: apps and the ability to customize, tweak, and download tools to help you really make your phone your own and do with it what you chose. Between the lack of apps (still a problem with BlackBerry phones) and the hardware issues the Storm suffered from, it never got traction. Sadly, the Storm 2 – more recently released, suffered largely the same fate, but this time not because of hardware (the Storm 2 is actually a very strong handset) but because RIM simply hasn’t brought the apps to the table.
So here we were in 2008 and 2009, with one half-hearted attempt at taking on the iPhone and bringing a strong smartphone to Verizon Wireless. If you wanted a decent smartphone on Verizon Wireless, the Storm was your best bet, and it wasn’t a great bet at all if you wanted the same kind of experience you could get on a G1 over at T-Mobile, an HTC Hero over on Spring, or an iPhone on AT&T. Then Palm released the Palm Pre: a new phone with a new operating system from a company known for porting its devices to as many carriers as would take them. The Pre started on Sprint, but it wasn’t too long before everyone knew it was coming to Verizon Wireless.
Before that could happen though, Motorola and Google rode in to Verizon Wireless’ rescue with the announcement of the Droid by Motorola (and very quickly after, HTC rode in with the Droid Eris) and completely stole Palm’s thunder. Motorola hit the market first with the Droid, HTC hit the week afterward, and Palm’s release a month or so later fell flat. While sad for Palm (and eventually ended up with its $1.2 billion acquisition by HP) the waves that the launch of the Droid family of Android phones on Verizon Wireless was a huge deal for the carrier, and breathed a lot of new life into the smartphone section of its stores — life that it’s still feeling.
Considering Verizon Wireless’ history of lackluster smartphones and locked-down devices that never empowered its customers and users, and the almost 180-degree turn brought about by the release of the Android-powered Droid series of devices, you could very well say that Google’s Android and manufacturing partners like HTC and Motorola very well saved Verizon Wireless’ image, at the very least in the eyes of smartphone users, power users, the technocrati, and people looking for phones that did a bit more than just make calls.
Still, all of those people combined don’t make up the majority of the cell phone market, so while I don’t think it’s legitimate to say that Google or even the Google/Motorola/HTC triad actually out-and-out “saved” Verizon Wireless, it’s more than legitimate to say they certainly saved Verizon Wireless’s perception and image as a leading-edge and highly technological wireless carrier.