Cell phone users are already familiar with the drill. Each wireless provider presents customers with phones hand-picked by the company. For newbies buying their first cell phones, it might be the line of available phones that influences the choice of service provider. However, if a customer wants to replace a phone but is happy with the service, he or she must choose from phones already approved by the company.

It’s kind of like the iPod vs. all those other players. If you haven’t already digitized your CD collection in any particular format like MP3, WMA or AAC, you can choose from just about every device on the market. However, if you want a device compatible with iTunes, then your choice is limited to the iPod. That is, as long as iTunes sells music protected by Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management technology.

Although Verizon Wireless’ plan to open its network to outside devices means a greater choice for consumers, it doesn’t mean any phone will do. Instead, outside phones will have to pass tests paid for by the device manufacturers. Furthermore, Verizon Wireless will still offer its line of approved mobiles and devices, presumably at a cheaper cost than outside phones.

Aside from allowing for a wider range of phone choices for customers, Verizon Wireless hopes that opening its network to other phones will encourage third-party software developers.

The open phone policy also puts Verizon Wireless in the running when Google launches its free software package for cell phones. Many cell phone manufacturers, including Samsung, Motorola and LG, have agreed to install Google’s software on some of their phones, while several wireless providers like Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile say they will support devices running the software.

Although Verizon Wireless isn’t on the list of current providers supporting Google’s software package, a company spokesperson did say customers will be able to use the software with Verizon’s network on phones purchased from non-Verizon sources.

Then there are the third-party software companies, which have a lot to gain if more phones carried their programs. Microsoft, which would like to see its Windows Mobile Software running on more devices, has already voiced support for Verizon Wireless’s plan.

Of course, the major advantage for consumers is choice. No longer tied down to only the phones a carrier offers, consumers could change plans but keep the same device. Or they could buy the phone they want instead of the phone the carrier offers.

On the other hand, outside phones might cost more than devices that are part of Verizon Wireless’ official line of handsets since the carrier might not subsidize or offer discounts and rebates for outside phones. And many consumers have grown used to the concept of cheap cell phones.

“U.S. consumers are used to the idea that a phone costs $50 – $100,” Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin said. “This is going to be jarring to the mass audience.”