Why the Verizon App Store Could Save Android Without Hurting iTunes

I’ve been a Verizon customer for ten years now, since before you could purchase a monthly texting plan and unlimited minutes. I was with the company when they switched from black-and-green cell phone displays to color ones, and when Motorola was still considered one of the top tier mobile handset manufacturers. I remember my first phone with a color display–the Motorola T720i–and marveling at the phone’s texting and mobile web capabilities (back then, it only cost a month to get on Mobile Web). But then, as the phones became more colorful, and might I add “smarter”, Verizon introduced its own app store of sorts, called Get It Now. 

This “app store” was chock full of downloadable ringtones and instant messaging software, and games from well-known publishers like EA. It also introduced the idea of paying for specific software for your mobile phone that could enable your little device to do more than you thought it was capable of. At the time, it was a great idea to put this kind of expandability on a phone–the kind of handsets that we would refer to now as “dumb” phones. But as the cell phone market grew–and when Apple stormed the market with its very own app-enabled phone, the iPhone–Verizon had to up the ante a bit. When it introduced Android phones into its handset family late last year, those of us holding out were pleased to hear that our loyalty was honored with an operating system that was open source and an app store that wasn’t as closed as Apple’s.

But we were soon disappointed when we realized that Verizon hasn’t changed its ways. If you’re an avid listener of our weekly podcast, you might already know that I’m an Android user myself, and am smitten with the hardware performance of my HTC Incredible, call quality included. But while the cell service hasn’t let me down, the news that Verizon is planning on force feeding its own app store on its smartphone users rubbed me the wrong way at first. Why does there need to be two app stores on my phone? I’m fine with the Android marketplace and I know how to navigate it so that I stay out of trouble. Why do I have to have this extra icon in my app list when I’m not even going to use this thing? 

What didn’t occur to me is that I’m not really the typical Verizon customer. It’s my job to know these app stores from left to right, but there are a ton of Verizon users out there who are just entering the smart phone market. The minute they step into the Android Market, things get pretty shady. It’s like picking up furniture from off the street–you never know if you’re bringing home bed bugs or some other sort of nasty critters. And then if you place that nasty couch in your home, the bed bugs spread everywhere, and pretty soon you’re writhing on the floor, desperately trying to scratch the itch. In Android’s case, you never know if you’re downloading an app that’s hiding something malicious, and you might even come across something that could actually do some everlasting damage to your phone. 

Let me tell you from firsthand experience, the idea that you may have “bricked” your phone because of software will bring you to tears. I’ve always appreciated the fact that Apple requires you to sync your iPhone with iTunes because if things go bad, you always have a backup waiting for you on your hard drive. But in my case, if my phone goes kaput, all I’ve got are my contacts and recent calls saved in Google’s cloud–my apps are all gone. To add insult to injury, there is no Android Marketplace account that keeps track of the apps you purchase because developers use Google Checkout. So without the iTunes backbone, I am virtually alone in this ever expanding marketplace, and I can’t even tether the thing for free. 

So this is where the Verizon app store could actually save Android because it can offer a regulated marketplace where the transactions are actually accounted for. No longer will Verizon Android users purchase apps from unknown developers. Instead, Verizon will make sure that these apps are fit for the phones they’re selling, and account for the cash passed between developer and consumer. The Verizon app store would only work on handsets stocked with Android 2.2, but it would be a great entry point for new smartphone users who are terribly afraid of contracting a virus on their pricey handsets. I wouldn’t put it past Verizon to overcharge for these applications, anyway, but at least they could be trusted. And like Apple’s App Store, that means that someone would be looking to make sure that the apps in the store aren’t completely a waste of time–if you thought Apple had a problem with Fart apps, you haven’t seen the myriad of lame soundboards and “skins” that are infiltrating the Android Marketplace. By comparison, the Apple apps that are approved are better because there is someone on the other side saying, “We have enough of these silly apps. Let’s try some other kind of silly app from now on.” There’s no one to do that for Android, and I am not at all amused with the variety of Peter Griffin soundboard apps available right now. 

There is one major problem I foresee from a Verizon app store, however. Currently, there’s a Verizon apps section in the Android Market, called Vcast Apps. The page includes suggestions from Verizon of Android apps that you might want to download–like Skype, the official Twitter app, and Layar–and a few of Verizon’s own proprietary applications that were annoyingly installed on my Incredible when I updated to Froyo. One of these apps includes Verizon’s own navigation app, which I’m too afraid to even start up lest I incur an extra charge on my already expensive monthly bill. On the older Verizon phones, navigation was also available, which makes sense if you’re stuck with a sort of “regular” phone (as I like to call it these days) and want to opt in for that feature. But for a platform like Android that already comes with a very powerful navigation system (with turn-by-turn directions, even), why bothering offering another?

Well, I’d wager that it’s because Verizon wants to make money off of consumers that don’t know any better. It’s an extra for Verizon’s navigation application to work; Google Maps is free with any data plan. I think Verizon is afraid of losing its monopoly in this open Android market and not being able to profit from it. It’s not necessarily that the app doesn’t work as well or that it is any better than what’s offered for free, it’s that Verizon wants you to pay them so that they can have a little more control over your phone. 

Android is an open platform and I doubt Google will ever bother to fight with carriers because of its open nature. They probably just care about getting their software on as many devices as possible. Great for them, but bad for the average consumer, who may not be aware that based on their carrier they may not be getting a very “open” market place after all. This is why I prefer Apple’s infrastructure. They’ve got a piece of software in iTunes that, even with its flaws, keeps your phone tied to your computer so that your data is never lost. And, their regulated App Store means that I don’t have to sift through pages of crap apps looking for what I want. Apple is smart enough to offer up the right kind of competition by allowing in more than one type of app, so even if there are a variety of flashlight apps to choose from, they all offer something a bit different. With Android, it’s the carriers that have control–essentially, The Man–and with the iPhone, your App Store is run by Jolly Ol’ Father Apple (Um, Steve?). 

Verizon obviously wants the iPhone to steal AT&T customers away, and they know that this is only slightly possible because they, purportedly, have better service (this is all depending on your coverage area, but roll with us here). You can bet that Apple won’t be lenient about letting Verizon tromp over its App S
tore the way it has with Google’s Android Marketplace. Just like with AT&T, Apple will play hardball. But, this is a good thing. It’s not that we can’t expect Verizon will have these exact same apps in the App Store if Apple does release a CDMA iPhone (all of which will undergo their own arduous App Store approval process), but it means that Verizon will have to figure out a way to move away from their old habits and become accustomed to the new reality of app marketplaces.

If Verizon moves away from this model, then it will be easier for the carrier to compete in the smartphone war. After all, who would consider switching to Verizon if it meant that their iPhone was going to be filled with proprietary apps? All they care for are the ones that Apple gives them. If the CDMA iPhone stays the same as its predecessor, then Apple fans will have more of a reason to head to another carrier because it will be just the same as AT&T’s. And Verizon loyalists will jump for joy because finally, their carrier isn’t offering a phone that’s bloated with proprietary apps.

So tell us, readers. How would you feel if Verizon put in their own proprietary apps on your iPhone? Would you still be inclined to switch carriers? Do you still think a CDMA iPhone is even in the cards at this point?

Follow this article’s author, Florence Ion, on Twitter.

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