Is AT&T Cheating on Apple?

05/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Brad and Jennifer. Brenda and Dylan. Favre and the Packers (and the Jets). We love us a good celebrity breakup, don't we? And it's not just relegated to sports and TV and movie stars. Even the geeky tech set gets caught up in the media frenzy when a big breakup might be in the offing.

To wit, the one question I've been asked day in, day out, for going on three years now: "What's up with the Verizon iPhone? When is Apple gonna ditch AT&T and start going steady with Verizon already?" Fair question, even if the closest any of us can come to answering it is to turn every high profile new cell phone release into an Apple-centric reading of tea leaves.

AT&T will start selling its first Google Android phone, the Motorola Backflip, this Sunday. To some, this is a telling sign that AT&T is breaking up with Apple - or at least trying to put some early spin on their getting dumped by Steve Jobs later this year. Given Android's rise on the smartphone scene and Apple's very public, hotly escalating turf war with Google, for AT&T to finally relent and start carrying a "Google Phone" can only mean one thing: they're on the outs with Apple.


Apple and AT&T may or may not break up this summer. They might just try the "seeing-other-people-thing" like the rest of the cell phone world plays it (HTC, Motorola, Palm - they're all openly polygamous when it comes to carriers). I frankly don't know any more than you do. But I'm pretty darn sure they're not about to break up over an Android phone. Especially not the Backflip, which is about as Un-Google a Google Phone as you'll ever see.

Not only is the Backflip not evidence that A & A are breaking it off, it's actually in many ways a signal that AT&T is trying to play it smart while also bending over backwards to appease Apple. Android is so hot, and so well supported (in the corporate sense, not in the customer-support sense), that it'd be market suicide for AT&T to eschew Google-powered devices while Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon all stock up on Androids of all shapes, sizes, and brand names. So what they did is launch just about the least possibly offensive-to-Steve Jobs Android phone conceivable. They're rolling out Android with a mid-range device literally stripped of every possible reference to Google.

I've had a Backflip in my office for about a week now (PR companies regularly seed early review units to bloggers so we can whip our audience into a pre-launch frenzy. Seriously, tech junkies are a very resilient, very frenzy-whip-able bunch). The first thing I noticed about Backflip is its wacky/clever design that's aimed at the teen/young adult Sidekick crowd. In other words, it's not a top-shelf direct competitor to iPhone.

Second, and more importantly, when you perform any sort of search on Backflip, you're directed to Yahoo! Search, not Google. Every instance of search - the home screen search widget, searching from within the Web browser, apps that use search - directs you to Y! and not G. So while Backflip may run Google's Android operating system, this is no Google Phone. It's a Motorola phone customized to AT&T's liking and loaded with apps and other "features" designed to leverage AT&T's various business relationships, including their search deal with Yahoo!

AT&T can do this because Android is an open source platform. Save a handful of "Google Experience" devices (like Verizon's Droid) that feature actual Google logos on the phone, packaging, and marketing materials, Android phones are built using open source software that Google lets phone makers and cellular carriers tweak as they will. So AT&T had Motorola tweak the Google right on out of the Backflip.

None of AT&T's carefully worded statements say anything about "standing by Apple," "dissing Google," or "having Steve's back," of course. But I've gotten my hands on just about every Android-powered phone that's been released in the U.S. - ever - and I've never before seen Google Search literally disabled and replaced right out of the box. Search is Google's life force. And AT&T's yanked it right off of their first so-called Google Phone. Take that with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson's comments earlier this week that iPhone will be an important part of his company's life "for quite some time" to come, and tell me if you're still seeing an AT&T-Apple breakup in those tea leaves.

Does that mean Apple is absolutely not going to start playing the field, even as early as this summer? Of course not. But come on, AT&T's not about to let its hero phone go without a fight. And certainly not because of a mid-range messaging device, even if it can do some wild, contortionist-type folding tricks. If and when Apple and AT&T move on from their exclusive relationship, the reasons will be many, but AT&T seeing Android on the side won't be one of them. Everyone else Apple's interested in is seeing Android, too. AT&T at least seems willing to tell the world who its best girl is.