Google and Verizon Wireless on Tuesday announced what would have once seemed a very unlikely partnership, pledging to "advance the discussion" in the mobile computing market with a family of jointly designed devices to appear over the next few years.
Eric Schmidt and Lowell McAdam, CEOs of Google and Verizon Wireless respectively, worked on this partnership for 18 months before they were ready to officially bring it to light, they said Tuesday morning in a Webcast press conference. Two mobile phones running Google's Android mobile operating system will launch on Verizon's network by the end of the year, and that's just the start of a joint road map that will include other Android-based devices beyond phones, the companies said.
Verizon is known for the strong performance of its data network, but has not historically been known for its mobile software, at least not in a good way. The carrier was perhaps most emblematic of the wireless industry's desire to control the software that ran on its devices, and that left Verizon customers with a stable network but relatively unpopular applications.
However, ever since Apple's iPhone shook up the mobile industry in 2007, Verizon has pledged to improve the quality of the software that runs on its phones by scaling back its control over that software to allow outside developers a greater say over what software is available on Verizon phones.
The Android devices that emerge from this partnership will have Google's Android Market preinstalled on the phones, said John Stratton, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Verizon Wireless parent company Verizon Communications. Verizon also pledged to support applications such as Google Voice, currently at the center of a controversy among Google, Apple, AT&T, and the Federal Communications Commission over Apple's decision to prevent Google Voice from reaching the iPhone.
The companies declined to name hardware partners for the initial devices, but Motorola and HTC have been rumored for months as the initial phone makers expected to work with Verizon. Beyond that, it sounds like Verizon and Google expect to release other devices, such as Netbooks or perhaps an ebook reader that will run on Verizon's network.
Verizon will become the third U.S. carrier to support Android, with the notable exception of iPhone carrier AT&T. T-Mobile has been perhaps the most vocal Android backer in the U.S. to date, although Sprint has also pledged its support for Android.
Verizon, however, is playing in a different league than T-Mobile or Sprint. With 87 million customers, Verizon has more subscribers than Sprint and T-Mobile combined.
Schmidt spoke several times during the call about Google's eagerness to team up with a network of that scale and implied that developers should like that combination as well. "Developers need the kind of data network that is the base of what Verizon offers," he said.
McAdam and Stratton deflected several questions about what this partnership would mean for Verizon's existing partners, of whom Research in Motion and Microsoft are perhaps most prominent. Verizon chose to make this announcement on the eve of the CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment conference in San Diego, overshadowing the debut of Windows Mobile 6.5.
A few years ago, smartphones made up around 10 percent of Verizon's devices, he said. Now, it's more like 40 percent and the growth has not stopped amid a global recession that has hurt demand for many consumer electronics products.
Still, Google and Verizon have pledged to create services and applications that may or may not be exclusive to Verizon Android handsets. Partnerships are a dime a dozen in the tech industry, but the combination of two giants of Verizon and Google's size has to be taken seriously by the rest of the mobile industry.