Droid: Creepy invasion of privacy has never been so enjoyable

TechRepublic member dcolbert discusses some of the pros and cons of the Verizon Droid, how the Droid compares to the iPhone, and some of his fantasies surrounding Apple, Google, and wireless carriers.

This post was written by TechRepublic member dcolbert.

In my last post, "Smartphones' biggest drawback? Terms of service," I shared my experience with my previous smartphone, the HTC XV6800 (TyTN), and how I came to acquire Verizon's new Droid.

As far as terms of service, Verizon has changed their stupid GPS policy with new devices. GPS is a sweet experience, despite the fact that Google MySQL DBs are surely recording every action of every moment of your everyday life and trying to figure out how to monetize all of those things by delivering ads that will make you spend more money.

The ads, which appear as you move from app to app within the Droid, are so non-intrusive that when you DO realize that there are ads on the screen, it's somewhat startling. But the most surprising, unexpected thing about the Droid, is that it's actually, truly, a stealthy Google Phone (gPhone). That fact seems to have been lost by the tech industry and journalists. You don't really activate the Droid until you enter your Google account – and once you do, watch out.

My Droid grabbed all kinds of information – contacts from my corporate account, personal account, and Facebook – and integrated it into the most cohesive and well-organized address book I've ever had. And it did this without asking me, telling me, or with me even realizing that this was going to happen. It did this flawlessly, but it was also a little spooky going into my Contacts book and seeing profiles of friends from FB, along with their FB pictures, who had never been in my personal contacts list before.

Google has successfully consolidated and seamlessly integrated YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, plus GoogleDocs, GoogleVoice, and GoogleReader, which all come together within the cloud. In fact, my experience with the Droid illustrates how neatly Google has been working to position themselves as the central broker in all transactions that take place in your digital life.

For example, I decided to use my Droid to post a video to YouTube and share the YouTube post via FB. To my surprise, when I opened the YouTube app, it took me to a YouTube account I'd forgotten that I had. Google hadn't forgotten this account, though. Google is the giant, pink cyber-elephant in the room – and Google doesn't forget.

I'm convinced that Google's master plan is to get you to use as many services and features as possible so that your smartphone is always turned on, in your hands, and in front of your eyes. Ultimately, Google isn't a search engine or a cloud-based app delivery company – it's an information warehouse. Google is advertising, as much as McDonald's is actually a real-estate company.

If this sounds like a negative review, let me be clear – creepy invasion of privacy and being cyber stalked by a multi-national global company has never been so enjoyable. The Droid's ability to integrate, organize, and consolidate your entire digital life — your accounts, apps, sites, and digital information – is super convenient. I'd even go so far to say that it's the world's most efficient, accurate, and effective PDA to date.

And that's the one HUGE thing Droid does that the OTHER one – the one with the fruit on the back of it – DOESN'T. The iPhone cannot match the level of integration that the Droid delivers because of the nature of the Google-ness underlying the device, services, and features. And even if that weren't the case, Google threw in the turn-by-turn GPS to seal the deal.

However, these benefits don't mean that the Droid is an iPhone "killer." Droid apps are rougher, less-polished, and there's a lot more evidence of the DIY, home-rolled Linux community core in the Droid apps - and frankly, that isn't going to appeal to the broader consumer audience in the way that iPhone apps do.

Despite that, the 10,000 or so apps in the official Android marketplace are overwhelming. There are also several sources for "non-market" apps that don't require you to do any special "jailbreak" of your phone or otherwise bypass security. We'll see if Verizon leaves this untouched in the future – but for right now, that's a significant advantage to the Droid market.

Clearly, the iPhone is the primary competition for the Droid and vice versa. Having 100,000 apps versus 10,000 apps seems kind of like having 40,000 nuclear missiles versus 4,500 nuclear missiles, when 1,500 would be enough to wipe out life on the entire planet. I understand that there are some "special" titles on the iPhone, especially commercial games, that haven't made their way to Android yet. Time will tell if this is a technical limitation or simply that Android didn't have the critical mass to attract those game makers. I suspect it is more the latter than the former.

Here are a few drawbacks of the Verizon Droid:

  • Application management seems a little clunky. Apps exist in a folder or drawer, and if you download an app, it goes into this bucket. You can drag and drop your apps onto one of three desktops, but there isn't a lot of "management" or organization to the scheme.
  • Having MultiTouch disabled, even though PicSay illustrates that the device is MultiTouch-capable, is probably an attempt to avoid a patent lawsuit by Apple – and the touch to zoom works ok, but it still sucks to have to make concessions like that.
  • I also think Verizon's insistence to charge an outrageous additional fee for tethering is ill-advised. Your 5GB unlimited data should be yours to use however you like, hooked up to whatever you want. However, if Verizon wants to put a "high-bandwidth usage" cap on anything exceeding the 5GB unlimited plan, that seems fair to me. What would truly be ideal is if some other major carrier (no, not T-Mobile… I said a MAJOR carrier) responded by allowing free tethering with an unlimited data plan.

Together, Apple and Google will begin to influence how wireless communications companies do business. I also think that Apple and Google will see the benefit in adding free and inexpensive features that are a value-add to consumers, whereas wireless carriers only have the incentive to monetize every bit of service they can in any way possible.

Frankly, I expect AT&T and Verizon will experience what it feels like to be a faceless customer that can easily be replaced and is only welcome as long as they are useful and generating positive growth and income (after all, Google wants to deliver ads – and they don't exactly care where you are or what you're using when you get those ads). I'm kind of excited by that prospect, because wireless carriers have got it coming.

The big change that the Droid brings isn't the device itself, but rather how it positions Google – and how it exposes how carefully Google has been positioning themselves. The proof of concept is finally there in a way that's going to start attracting people outside of the tech bleeding edge.

For good or bad, the experience delivers in a way that's bound to appeal. I'm just not sure what we're giving away to get to that point. At some time in the future, I may wish for the simple days back, when Verizon took advantage of me by charging me twice for the same service. Of course, that will be my last laugh – if Google, using Linux, delivers themselves to a place where they are far worse than Microsoft ever dreamed of being.


Sonja Thompson has worked for TechRepublic since October of 1999. She is currently a Senior Editor and the host of the several blogs.

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