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In the four years I've been reviewing cell phones for CNET, I don't think I've seen a more interesting time in the mobile world than I have in the last month. It all started October 26 when Sprint announced that it was considering allowing customers to unlock their phones. Then, just over a week later, Google joined T-Mobile and Sprint (among others) in announcing the Open Handset Alliance, which would promote an open platform called Android for developing cell phone applications. And finally, just this week Verizon Wireless--which is not a part of the Google alliance--announced that next year it would support any CDMA phone, and that customers could use almost any application on their handsets.
Will carriers really free our cell phones? Talk back to me below.
Why is all this significant? Well, while unlocked phones and open-ended handsets have long been a fixture for GSM carriers, the CDMA side of the industry hasn't been so generous. Since they don't use SIM cards, it's not easy to swap a CDMA handset between carriers. Even if you could unlock it, you had to get the new carrier to do it for you. And for a long time now, CDMA carriers such as Sprint and Verizon Wireless were unwilling to do that.
The Google and Verizon announcements have additional implications. Until now, most carriers have restricted the use of third-party applications on their phones. And even worse, carriers removed--and still remove--from their phones features that the device manufacturers have installed. Verizon Wireless was particularly notorious for doing so. It was one of the last carriers to offer a Bluetooth phone, and even when it finally gave us one, it removed object exchange profiles from its phones. Also, it continues to saddle its phone with an unintuitive and stodgy menu interface.
If Google's Android platform actually makes it onto T-Mobile and Sprint devices, and Verizon makes good on its promise to open its devices to third-party programs, then we could see a new cell phone era in the United States: an era where cell phones become more like personal computers, in that we can add programs to our handsets at will. It could be an interesting future, to say the least.
Could it be that the CDMA folks are finally getting a heart? Maybe, but before we get too excited, it's important to mention Verizon will be providing benchmarks for developing third-party applications for its phones. And even on the Google side, carriers and manufacturers who support Android will be free
to set any limitations that they see fit. Hopefully, neither will make it too difficult. Too many restrictions would certainly go against the open spirit of both measures. We'll have to see what happens, but in the meantime, I'm hopeful.