Is Verizon lying about the Droid's capabilities?

Yesterday, Verizon made it clear that while the original Droid would be getting Android 2.2, it would not be getting one of Android 2.2’s most coveted features: WiFi HotSpot. In other words, you wouldn’t be able to flip a switch and turn your Droid into a little 3G-powered router for all of your friends to leach off on the commute home.

The reason for this feature’s absence, said Verizon, was that “the Droid.. doesn’t have [the] hardware to support a Mobile Hotspot”. That’s fair, right? Missing hardware is missing hardware; as I put it in the first post, you just can’t make chocolate chip cookies without the chocolate chips.

Then I thought about it. What hardware, exactly, was it missing? WiFi receiver? Check. WiFi transmitter? Check. A 3G chipset, a fairly powerful CPU to handle the routing, and a reasonably sized battery? Checks across the board. That’s when it struck me: not only could the Droid totally handle Mobile Hotspot, but I’d seen it handling Mobile Hotspot before.

Flash backwards about a month. I was at an iPhone developer meet-up in San Francisco, debating the merits of various smartphone platforms with people who knew them best.

One developer pulled a handset out of his bag. “You know the only reason I keep this around? WiFi tethering for my laptop and iPad. I had to flash the firmware to a custom build, but it works like a charm.” The handset, as you might have guessed it, was a Motorola Droid.

Doubting my memory, I popped on YouTube to look for a less anecdotal example. Sure enough, there are dozens of videos showing the same thing: the Motorola Droid’s hardware is more than capable of WiFi tethering. Multiple devices, encryption support, all that jazz — it all seems to work. It requires the user to modify their handset’s software and is thus not an official solution by any means, but it works well enough that it might as well be.

So what’s going on here? Is Verizon nixing a feature on the original Droid to have a bigger selling point for the upcoming Droid 2? Perhaps — but remember, Verizon makes their money on contracts, not hardware. As long as they’ve got your soul for the next however-many months, they don’t care which of their smartphones is in your pocket. Then again, offering a feature on the Droid 2 not found on its predecessor gives Droid 1 owners a reason to re-up their contract mid-year, thereby satisfying their overarching goal of keeping you locked down.

I reached out to the same Verizon rep who made the initial statement about the Droid’s hardware, and got a response. I didn’t get permission to publish the statement before publishing this post, so, in good practice, I won’t quote it verbatim — but to paraphrase, they essentially said that the information they passed on was the same information that was shared with them, but they were looking into it now that doubts have been raised.

Update: Finally, a clear answer. A reader reached out to us with a fantastic bit of insight: while the hardware in question (the Texas Instruments WL1271 WiFi chipset) is technically up to the task, the firmware that runs on said hardware isn’t. Whereas the unofficial hotspot solutions utilizes Adhoc mode, Google’s official Android 2.2 hotspot requires “Access Point” mode — something which TI hasn’t gotten around to adding in any firmware updates. Verizon wasn’t exactly correct in saying that missing hardware was the culprit, but it doesn’t seem like their intentions were nefarious.