If you thought AT&T's exclusive access to the iPhone has made them brazen, check out what happened at the Verizon store on Friday while I was checking out the new Motorola Droid:
- The first thing I confirmed was that Verizon does expect you to pay $45/mo for data if you want to use Exchange. I'm guessing you don't actually have to buy a corporate plan to use Exchange, but they certainly want to make you think you do. Since my company doesn't pay for my phone, but I still want to use it to access my corporate email, there's no way I'm paying $15/mo more just for Exchange access. To be fair, I believe AT&T also offers corporate plans, but nobody ever tried to sell me one, and Exchange works fine with the regular $30/mo plan.
- I also confirmed that Verizon is raising their early termination fee on November 15th from $175 (somewhat reasonable) to $350 (absolutely absurd). That means after November 15th, pretty much nothing will be able to get me to buy a Verizon phone (until AT&T does the same thing, that is, which I'm sure is coming).
- The most atrocious thing I saw was a salesperson tell a customer that he just found out that the Droid was going to have all the apps that the iPhone has. I chuckled, but let it pass until I heard him use the same line on someone else standing next to me as I played with the display model. That was too much. When I called it on him, he assured me that all iPhone applications were being ported to Android. He wasn't happy when I explained to him (and the other customer) that there was no way that was going to happen. Nor was he particular receptive when I suggested that he pitch the Droid on its own merits (of which it has plenty) rather than misrepresenting it. I really hope this was a sales tactic employed by this salesperson alone, and not something he was instructed to say during sales training.
Part of the reason I was so interested in the Droid was to get away from AT&T which I feel has abused their exclusive access to the iPhone, however from what I can tell so far, Verizon isn't going to be much better. My inclination at this point is to stick with the devil that I know.
The Phone Itself
My impressions of the Droid were pretty positive in general, but I don't feel like the keyboard was done well enough to justify the additional size, weight, and moving parts. The four primary problems I found with the keyboard were:
- It's not centered. Because of the D pad on the right, you have to really stretch your right thumb for it to be in position which throws everything off. In my experience, keyboards need to be symmetrical to be usable.
- The keys aren't offset. In order to save space, they keys are in a tight grid rather than an actual keyboard pattern. This seems subtle, but it really slows down typing.
- There's no dedicated number row. Having to use meta keys frequently on a thumb board really slows me down.
- The keys aren't raised enough. I made as many mistakes on the physical keyboard as I did on the software keyboard, and more than I make on my iPhone's virtual keyboard. Maybe I'd adjust to it eventually, but then again, maybe I wouldn't.
Google, Motorola, and Verizon are right to focus on a phone that has things that people want, but that Apple isn't interested in providing (like keyboards), but that doesn't mean we'll be happy with a substandard implementation. We're all so accustomed to the virtual keyboard on the iPhone by now that a physical keyboard has to be done extremely well for it to qualify as an advantage. It really baffles me why so few phones get keyboards right. Here's a hint: get an old Sidekick 2 or 3, and do exactly what they did. That's it. Don't compromise, and don't even try to make improvements. A keyboard as good as the Sidekick's on a device as powerful as the Droid would be hugely compelling, and would certainly be enough to make me switch.
The State of the Mobile Industry
So what is ultimately going to save us from this mess that passes as the mobile industry in this country? In the short term, government regulation that makes all these anti-competitive practices (huge early termination fees, unrealistically long contracts, arbitrary software approval processes, etc.) unlawful. And in the long term, our best hope is ubiquitous Wi-Fi (or whatever the name will be for Wi-Fi that's everywhere). Having ubiquitous and affordable Wi-Fi instantly transforms the mobile industry into what the PC market is today. In other words, rather than being locked into contracts, being forced to pay exorbitant monthly rates, and having your hardware purchases tightly controlled by poorly run service providers, consumers will be able to purchase any type of hardware they want right off the shelf running whichever operating system they like best, then do anything they want with it, including making as many VoIP calls as they want to whomever they want, installing any application they want, and buying as many different devices as they want. Unfortunately, we're still a long ways away from what's best for consumers as my trip to the Verizon store reminded me.