Verizon Launches Low-Key Droid Event in Times Square, with Big Hopes

Verizon tried a Times Square promotion for its Droid smartphone on Nov. 6, the same day as the device's release. Despite the small number of people who turned out for the event, Verizon and Google are hoping that the Android-powered smartphone will attract massive amounts of customers, and justify prerelease advertising that positioned the Droid as a robust competitor to Apple's iPhone. Some early reviews seemed to put the iPhone and Droid on relatively even ground in the capabilities category.

Verizon must have booked its Times Square promotion of the Droid smartphone well before the Yankees won the World Series, or it might have chosen a different venue: The majority of people crowding into arguably the world's most famous intersection were dressed in baseball uniforms, and there to watch the victors' parade on the big outdoor displays.

Despite the baseball-related hoopla, though, a few of the Square's pedestrians managed to focus their attention on the giant screen above the entrance to the NASDAQ MarketSite, which broadcast: "Search Times Square with Your Voice. 888-376-4336."

When you dialed that number, an electronic voice told you that "Droid" would call you back in a few minutes. The caller could then speak a word ("pizza," "Friday," "poems") and see, on that giant screen, a Google map flash to life with "Droid's" best guess as to a location that matched that search term.

That was 12:30 on Nov. 6. Out of the dozens of people who had packed Times Square, Yankees caps and tunics proudly displayed, it seemed that only a handful had clustered there for Droid-related activities.

Verizon is hoping for a larger turnout, obviously, for the actual Droid smartphone, which began shipping on Nov. 6 for $199 with a two-year contract after $100 rebate. In anticipation of hoped-for demand, some Verizon Wireless stores opened on that Friday as early as 7 a.m. Both Verizon and Google can perhaps take heart in the positive reviews of the device that ran in both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

The Droid offers a variety of features, including Google Maps Navigation GPS and a 5-megapixel camera, which could appeal to both consumers and the enterprise. Starting next year, the Droid will double as a laptop modem via Verizon's 3G wireless EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) service, according to reports. The iPhone, as eWEEK's Clint Boulton breaks down in his coverage of Droid, does not tether to Macs.

Boulton also breaks down Droid's data-service pricing structure; the device requires a minimum $70 monthly service plan for two years, but that figure excludes text messaging.

Verizon has positioned the Droid firmly on a collision course with the iPhone, starting with a series of "iDon't" advertisements designed to draw unflattering attention to the iPhone's lack of a physical keyboard and inability to run applications simultaneously.

But a number of reviews from the mainstream press, not to mention the blogosphere, place Apple's and Verizon-Google's devices as somewhat evenly matched. In The New York Times, David Pogue suggested that the Droid boasts superior phone network, customizability, GPS navigation and other attributes, while the iPhone is a simpler, sleeker device with better Web browsing and music/video syncing, and a deeper mobile-application bench.

Apple's App Store now includes 100,000 apps for download, and a Sept. 28 press release from the company suggested that more than 2 billion apps had been downloaded since the service launched in July 2008. While the Google Android platform could entice developers in mass numbers to develop Droid-friendly applications, it will be quite some time-if ever-before Google catches up to Apple in the mobile-apps department.

That fact, among others, has suggested to some that the Droid will not, in fact, prove to be an iPhone killer.

Times Square may not have filled with Droid-heads on Nov. 6, but Verizon and Google are likely hoping that, over the coming weeks, they'll line up in the stores to purchase the actual device. If that happens, then the Droid may succeed where other smartphones, such as the Palm Pre, mostly failed: making a dent in the iPhone's public mind share. But until figures on Droid sales start trickling out (probably at the end of next quarter), it will be too soon to tell how well Google and Verizon have fared against their opponent.