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Verizon and Google Enter Holiday Party Late and Sulky

By Paul Hartsock
Dec 17, 2011 5:00 AM PT

The Galaxy Nexus has finally arrived in the United States after showing up in places like Europe and Hong Kong several weeks ago. This is a Samsung smartphone running the very latest and greatest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich. And there are no factory-installed tweaks to the OS either -- it's straight Android, no mixer.

Verizon and Google Enter Holiday Party Late and Sulky

Obviously this is good news for those who've been excited to see the latest Google superphone firsthand, but the timing for this launch is very unusual. It arrived on shelves Thursday -- right at the top of holiday shopping crazy season. In fact, by the time this thing went on sale in the U.S., crazy season may have already peaked.

So why the delay? Actually, it's not really a delay, since Verizon never promised a specific release date until the day before it actually came out. But the timing is still very odd. One guess is that it all comes back to Google Wallet, the company's new mobile payment technology. Verizon happens to be a major backer of competing technology, ISIS, and it didn't want to see Google Wallet on the Nexus. Verizon says the reasoning was purely technical, but it hasn't exactly been generous with details. Anyway, Google complied with Verizon's wishes, but the suspicion is that there was a lot of arm wrestling being done over this, thus the late-in-the-season U.S. launch.

It's hard to say how many sales that situation actually cost Verizon. We're still in the midst of the holiday shopping season, of course. But as the Nexus had no set date of arrival, some holiday shoppers who wanted to give someone a nice new smartphone this year may have decided it wasn't worth it to wait until the last minute. So they picked up a Razr, or a Galaxy S II. Or even an iPhone.

Listen to the podcast (12:17 minutes).

Let My OS Go

For months, the mobile operating system webOS has wallowed in HP's dungeon as a political prisoner. HP acquired the platform under Mark Hurd when it bought Palm, but a regime change ushered in the leadership of Leo Apotheker, who was no friend of the kinds of consumer-oriented devices webOS powers. Products were discontinued, webOS was sent to purgatory, and the fate of the operating system that lots of people liked but nobody seemed to want was left up in the air.

But Apotheker's reign at HP was almost comically short, and the new boss at HP, Meg Whitman, has managed to make a decision about webOS: It will live on, it will not be sold to another company, but it won't remain the possession of HP, either. Instead, it's going open source. HP has opted to relinquish its proprietary hold on the software and send it out into the world of FOSS, where hackers, crackers, modders, coders, developers, tinkerers, geeks and people who just prefer the use of shared software can do with it as they please.

Going open source will give webOS a certain kind of immortality. Once software's been open-sourced under the proper license, a corporate entity can no longer control it, sell it or kill it. If FOSSers decide they like it and want to really dig into it, then webOS may well live on as a living, growing project.

That's the ideal outcome for it, anyway, and there are still a few obstacles to clear before that happens. HP needs to decide exactly which license to apply to it. And it still has to extract certain secret sauces it's already mixed into webOS before it sends it out into the wild.

Also, there's a large amount of skepticism in the open source community as to how well webOS can actually survive in that world. HP's decision brings up memories of Nokia and Symbian, not all of which are pleasant. Will HP work to build a community around open webOS development, or is it just dumping code? Can an open webOS be reasonably expected to compete with Android and iOS? Is competing even the point?

Still, even if webOS can't make it on its own and its DNA ends up being spliced and diced into all sorts of different projects, that's perhaps a better place for it than just rotting away in some company's root cellar.

In With a Whisper

I guess you could say Niels Munksgaard, Nokia's director of portfolio, product marketing and sales, is something of a contrarian. He was recently quoted as saying young people are fed up with iPhones and unhappy about the complexity of Androids. Conventional wisdom might have you thinking that young people in general like to follow trends and are probably the least likely demographic to be intimidated by new and complex technologies. And you might point out that Android sales, iPhone sales and app sales in their respective app stores are simultaneously exploding.

But you need to just shut your face, because a marketing expert is speaking, and he knows what kids today like.

Or at least he knows he has a phone to sell, and it's not an iPhone or Android. Nope, Nokia's now mouth-deep in Windows Phone, Microsoft's late-to-the-party platform that's so far received some fairly positive reviews but for the moment can't be found on a large number of high-profile handsets.

That could change once Nokia gets up to speed with production. So far the union between the software behemoth and the handset leviathan has produced two small offspring: the Lumia 800 and 710. These debuted in Europe a couple of months ago, and now it's been announced that one of them, the 710, will come to the U.S. in January as the first Nokia Windows Phone to land in the states.

The carrier will be T-Mobile. The price will be dependent on rebates and contracts -- Nokia's finally learned that's just how you have to play the game if you want to sell big numbers in the U.S. -- and after paperwork it totals fifty bucks.

That's kind of a steal for a smartphone right now, but it does raise some suspicion among those who were hoping for a high-powered phone that can get in the ring with the best iPhone or Android out there and last 12 rounds. Obviously the phone's cheap, but is it, you know, cheap?

Let's look at some hardware stats. The 1.4 Ghz processor isn't bad. It runs on 4G -- well, T-Mobile's version of 4G anyway, which isn't LTE like Verizon's. Its 5 MP camera is also kind of middling for a brand-new phone, though it beats what most people are probably carrying in their pockets right now. And it runs Windows Phone Mango, which is the latest version.

So it looks like Nokia's targeting a wide base with something simple and inexpensive. The word "Windows" might appeal to PC users who've up to now been reluctant to jump on a platform that strays too far from their comfort zone, and the $50 price tag might attract light-in-the-wallet teens (who Nokia thinks are a little too dumb for Android, remember).

But should aiming to build the Model T of the smartphone world really be Job No. 1 for Microsoft and Nokia at this point? None of its stats make the Lumia 710 sound like a true stinker of a smartphone, but none of them make it particularly interesting either.

Both companies are probably capable of putting together a powerhouse phone worthy of a three-way cage match with an iPhone 4S and a Galaxy S II. Something like that could make a big first impression for the partnership in the U.S. market. Nokia would have the opportunity to amaze everyone with its very real hardware talents, which most Americans haven't seen firsthand since its high-end smartphones used to cost around $700 or $800 out of pocket -- no subsidies offered. And it would give the Windows Phone platform the celebrity device it still hasn't found after more than a year in the market.

And of course all of that and more might be just around the corner. Nokia's been hinting at some big things in store at CES next month. But for now, all we know for sure is that Nokia and Microsoft aren't looking to kick things off with fireworks.

Low on Gas

AT&T's bid to acquire T-Mobile may not be dead entirely, but it really looks like it's getting there fast.

It's looking so limp, in fact, that some of its biggest opponents have stopped spending time and money fighting it. Sprint and C Spire have decided to postpone their lawsuits against AT&T, perhaps figuring that in a few weeks they may not even be necessary.

Meanwhile, Dish Network is reportedly creeping up on T-Mobile in case things officially don't work out.

The deal's been scorned by the FCC, and the judge in the U.S. Department of Justice's lawsuit against it has set the case on pause to give AT&T time to decide how it wants to revise its proposal to gain regulatory approval -- or whether it wants to try at all. AT&T's already earmarked the $4 billion it'll have to shell out to Deutsche Telekom if the deal really does fall through.

Back when it was originally proposed, AT&T came out swinging, making bold predictions about how a merger would create jobs, provide greater coverage and improve the nation's telecom infrastructure. In interviews, press releases and at industry events, executives would throw themselves at every opportunity to pump the deal and put another layer of shine on it. But now, things have gone quiet. There's little to no cheerleading being done at all, and it really appears that the buyout is losing steam.

The big date comes down to Jan. 18. That's the date on which the DoJ case and the lawsuits with C Spire and Sprint are set to reconvene. What happens then is all up to whether AT&T and Deutsche Telekom decide to cut their losses or go for broke.

Eyes and Ears on the Road

Using your phone to send a text message is probably one the worst things you can do while behind the wheel, short of chugging a 2009 vintage can of FourLoko. Many states in the U.S. have passed laws specifically banning texting while driving; the rest probably figure that police already have the power to pull over distracted drivers regardless of what they're doing that's so distracting.

The issue of driving while talking on a cellphone is a little more nuanced. Some people insist they're fine to drive with the phone up against their face, and while studies generally agree people are on average worse drivers when holding a handset, there's disagreement over just how much worse. A small number of states have banned handheld phones while driving, so lots of people just use a headset instead.

But the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended going one big step further than that. It's recommended a nationwide ban on using any kind of personal gadget while driving, save for those that actually assist the act of driving. That would mean not only a ban on texting and handheld phone use, but on hands-free devices as well. It says that eliminating the use of personal devices while driving will save lives, and that no phone call is worth an accident.

Supporters of the recommendation point to studies that show even hands-free conversations can distract drivers from the task of navigating a vehicle. So do they want to ban drivers from having conversations even with the people sitting there in the car with them? That would be pretty ridiculous. Besides, some research has found that talking with someone sitting next to you is much less distracting because passengers can see the road with you, they know when to quiet down so you can concentrate, and driving becomes part of the conversation.

But the language of the NTSB's proposal might leave open a big loophole. Devices designed to support the "driving task" would be allowed, and that would presumably include things like navigation devices. But some of those devices do a whole lot more than navigation -- they can also link to your cell to become a speakerphone.

Technically, using a nav unit that way would violate the law the NTSB wants to see passed, since you're still actually using your phone while driving. But how could a ban on speakerphone use possibly be enforced? Will cops need to pull over drivers who move their mouths when nobody else is in the car? Couldn't those people just say they were talking to themselves?

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