March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 11.19.04
From the Desk of Michelle Maisto: Cellular Buffet
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The conspiracy theories started a few months back, after my cell phone quietly slipped to the bottom of a swimming pool with an Olympic-athlete’s lack of splash. One free-with-service-activation Motorola camera phone down the drain (or, resting nearby it, anyway).  

By Michelle Maisto




However, my SIM chip, that little workhorse, survived, and I set off to find it a new home. Now, here’s a little something I’ve noticed: When the phone isn’t being given away free, the retail prices suddenly seem far more expensive. At the cellular shop below my office, the manager pointed out each of the phones that were compatible with my service, and seeing I was underwhelmed, he very generously offered to lend me a used Samsung while I mulled over my decision. The next day, the gods of convenience smiled upon me, and a reviewer’s kit with a GSM phone arrived with the mail. When I stopped by the shop that evening to return the borrowed Samsung, the manager asked what I’d settled on and I showed him the reviewer’s phone. “Oh, wow,” he said. “That phone shouldn’t even work with your carrier.”

But it did. It did work. And so I started to wonder, was all the talk I’d long heard about compatibility just baloney? Were we made to believe that phone A with service B simply didn’t work, when the truth was that the carrier simply didn’t want you to use phone A; it wanted you to use phone C, because it had struck a deal with the manufacturer? A second reviewer phone arrived—and the SIM chip worked in it, too. I’d cracked the secret, I thought. I imagined the vast selection of phones now at my disposal, a veritable buffet of cellular options.

Then I called my carrier to have my service extended to include e-mail and Web access, to take advantage of the review unit’s bells and whistles. “I’m sorry,” I was told. “Our service doesn’t support that device.” Hm. Cut off at the pass.

So, in one respect, phone A and service B actually didn’t work together. But why not? Was this simply the result of greedy carriers partnering with manufacturers to whittle our options and ensure their profits? My imagination swam with thoughts of nefarious, big-money dealings, until I called Gartner Analyst Michael King, who offered an alternate perspective.

“Well, yes, they’re in this business to make money,” conceded King, “but you’ve got to think of all they’re responsible for. When you need a new battery, when you have a problem with your phone—hardware or software related—who do you call? The carrier. In reality, yes, there’s a much wider variety of phones to choose from—when you go to Japan there are hundreds of phones to choose from—but in the U.S., you’re looking at six to 12 months of testing for handsets. Plus, think about things like Vodaphone Live, or T-Mobile Zones—there’s software they need to design in order to offer these features. They couldn’t afford to support all the phones they’re compatible with.”

True.

And that free phone I so quickly disposed of? “It would take them a year to make up the cost of giving away a phone. And not just the cost of the phone but the COA, which in part is made up of the cost of the phone, the sales spiffs they pay and the support of the stores and such, which is why they want you to sign a one- or two-year contract.” This sheds some light, also, on why there are so many two-year contracts these days; phones are far more feature-rich and costly than they were a few years ago, when two-year contracts were still a glimmer in Sprint PCS’ eye.

My ire was assuaged, but I still don’t like the idea of carriers limiting my options. “You can fully expect to see a significant number of new handsets over the next few years,” said King. It wasn’t everything I wanted to hear, but it was something.
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