Samsung Fascinate: Why, Verizon -- why?

Article copyright 2010 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Samsung Fascinate Verizon

Gather 'round, kiddos: It's story time.

There once was a little smartphone named Fascinate. Fascinate was a strong and powerful young phone, fit as can be and with looks to kill. By the time he was born, Fascinate had learned all the tricks of his rich Android heritage and was ready to take on the world.

Once he'd reached the age of maturity, Fascinate, like most phones, set off into the city to earn a living. But Fascinate's parents -- an odd couple by the names of Samsung and Verizon -- weren't content letting their phone-son venture into the workforce armed with only his natural prowess. Samsung and Verizon, you see, wanted little Fascinate to make more money than just the standard wage most people paid for his services.

So Samsung and Verizon locked the young phone down with a chastity belt full of extra cash-making tools, hiding the key away so only they (or a skilled locksmith) could remove it. Sure, it held him back from taking full advantage of the Android traits he'd inherited -- but at the end of the day, they'd earn more income from their eager young phone, and they were happy.

Sadly, this story is no fable. Verizon has made some disappointing choices with its new Samsung Fascinate Android phone, taking a perfectly fine device and tainting it with profit-driven modifications. Needless to say, it's the customers -- both literally and figuratively -- that'll pay the price.

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Verizon's Samsung Fascinate: Another Case of Unfortunate Meddling

Samsung Fascinate Android

We've talked plenty about the problems with baked-in Android user interfaces. The Samsung Fascinate, like all Galaxy S phones, runs on Samsung's heavily modified TouchWiz interface. That creates its own set of concerns.

Still, in the grand scheme of things -- looking at the big picture of Android devices right now -- the integrated UI is an offense we can let slide. It's the series of "features" Verizon added beyond the basic interface that we cannot.

Verizon, you see, decided to meddle with the Android software on the Fascinate in order to enforce some business-oriented partnerships. Most notable is the carrier's decision to pull Google off of the device.

That's right: On the Fascinate, a Google Android phone, you cannot use Google as your default search engine. Instead, you get Bing. Bing when you use the phone's search key. Bing when you search within the phone's browser. Bing on the home screen widget. And yes, Bing Maps instead of Google Maps.

Now, offering a choice in search is certainly no crime. If you like Bing, hey, more power to you. (Personally, I think this poem sums up the Bing experience pretty well, but to each his own.) The problem is that Verizon isn't offering a choice. It's telling you: YOU WILL USE BING. Period.

Verizon has adjusted the Fascinate so that it's impossible to change the default search engine away from Bing (at least, without performing some advanced and potentially warranty-voiding hacks). The carrier even appears to have gone as far as to hide the downloadable Google Search app from the Android Market. Come on, Verizon. These are the kind of silly, choice-defeating games AT&T typically plays with Android. You don't want to go down that road. We don't want you to go down that road.

[Update: Verizon Wireless has clarified the situation, noting that the standalone Google Search app will become available to Fascinate users when the phone receives the Android 2.2 upgrade. The system's default search option, however, will remain locked to Bing.]

The Fascinate's fascination with irritation doesn't end with search, by the way. The phone is also configured to use Verizon's VZ Navigator service -- a feature that costs $10 a month -- instead of the free and arguably superior Google Maps Navigation service typically associated with Android. And there's a host of other tough-to-remove bloatware preloaded on the phone, too.

Samsung Fascinate and Android Openness

One of the things that makes Android great is the fact that it's open -- it's all about choice. That choice, however, goes both ways; it's in the carriers' hands as much as it is in ours. And with any open system, you're going to have people who use the flexibility for good and people who use the flexibility for greed. Yes, smartphones are a business. But when the business experience starts interfering with the user experience, the balance has shifted too far.

Ultimately, we can't control what carriers and manufacturers choose to do with Android. But we can control which phones we choose to buy -- and collectively, as a result, which phones fail or succeed. Android is about choice. And when carriers make bad choices, it's up to us to choose the more attractive options.

Here's the truth: If you want a Samsung Galaxy S, you'd be better off getting an unmeddled one from Sprint or T-Mobile (AT&T's version is OK, but it's locked down in the typical AT&T ways). If you want an Android phone on Verizon, the Droid X, Droid 2, and Droid Incredible are all top-of-the-line devices that won't tie you down.

We can only hope that over time, customers' wallets will do the talking -- and the carriers will learn that a watered down and locked down experience isn't what Android users want.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, on Twitter, or at eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway.

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Article copyright 2010 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

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