Verizon bets big at the CRAPPS table

Matt Miller caught my attention today with the headline “Have US wireless carriers gone mad? Samsung Fascinate crippled by Verizon“! He’s displeased with the mobile crapware or CRAPPS on this thing. Unfortunately, there’s likely more madness to follow.

Matt takes issue with the fact that Verizon swapped out Google Search and Google Maps with Bing and Verizon Navigator, respectively, with no easy way to switch them back or to something else. In addition, access to the Android Market and app sideloading have been limited. I’m sure nothing stops a geek from rooting the device and switching whatever they want, but for the average user, these options are locked in and that, no matter the quality of the software, drops them into my definition of CRAPPS*.

But that’s just one phone, right? Verizon hadn’t done this with the DROID line, so it’s an isolated incident. Well, don’t be too sure about that. A couple of events indicate this is just the beginning.

First, one thing you may not realize is Verizon and Microsoft signed a five-year deal to make Bing the exclusive search and advertising provider for Verizon Wireless. Emphasis on “Exclusive.” BlackBerry users have already seen this happen. At the time, it was believed Android handsets were exempt, but the Samsung Fascinate demonstrates that belief was a false one.

So why didn’t Android phones already get the same treatment as BlackBerrys? Because the software wasn’t ready. But it is now. Last week, Microsoft announced Bing for Mobile, the official Bing app for Verizon Wireless Android phones. There was no business reason why Verizon’s Android phones didn’t get the Bing treatment; it was a matter of software.

So maybe you’re thinking Android phones weren’t exempt, but possibly the DROID line is. Why would you think that? Microsoft is rumored to have paid $500M for this five-year exclusive deal. If they allowed Verizon’s flagship smartphone line to be exempt, they should fire the guy who brokered that deal. Furthermore, on their website, Verizon Wireless claims: “Bing will be the search for the native browser on most devices.” The way they churn out new DROID models, they can’t both exempt DROID and make Bing the search engine on most of their web-capable devices. Either Bing will replace Google on new DROID phones going forward (and maybe even retroactively via an OS update), or Microsoft dropped half a billion dollars on a really bad deal.

Unfortunately, while locking down an open Android device in this way may strike some as madness, it’s actually a return to normalcy. Remember, the way AT&T kept their hands off the iPhone (Apple worries about the device; AT&T worries about the network) was a novel idea when it was introduced. It looked like Android phones would be treated the same way, but I don’t recall Verizon ever agreeing to that. (The Open Handset Alliance is all about openness on the production side, not the consumer side.) Even if they did, DROID is their brand. HTC, Motorola, and Google don’t control the devices; Verizon does. They are essentially both Apple and AT&T in this analogy.

Android being a free, open source operating system does not matter either. It’s free as in “free beer” not “free as in freedom” and being open source does not mean it can’t be locked down. It’s open for vendors to do with as they please. The OHA makes no promise of openness for consumers. Also, iOS is built on open source Darwin.  Clearly open source does not guarantee consumer openness.

What this all boils down to is that the “mad crippling” of the Samsung Fascinate is not an anomaly. It is what was normal before the iPhone came along. Many of us seem to have forgotten that. There was a period of adjustment as carriers reacted to the iPhone, but that period is over. DROID is a strong brand, better recognized than Android. That gives them the leverage to dump Google Maps for their own $10/month Navigator and Google Search for the more profitable Bing.  That’s not madness; it’s a move back to (profitable) business as usual.

*Let me re-emphasize, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Bing as a search engine. This is not an attack on the service or the software. In fact, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well Microsoft is marketing the service. The overall effort and strategy has really impressed me. (That they’re poised to displace Google as the search engine on DROID, taking revenue that Google assumed was theirs, is deliciously cunning.) It is strictly Verizon’s lock-in approach that qualifies the app as a CRAPP. That’s regardless of any positive qualities.