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Friday, January 27, 2023

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How Google & Apple Sold Out The Cell Phone Revolution

“Where’s the revolution,” I asked when Google launched its Nexus One phone earlier this year. There had been plenty of rumblings that Google would shake up how cell phones were sold in the US. Google’s Eric Schmidt once predicted we’d all be using free phones paid for by ads. But the Nexus One simply offered more of the same-old, same-old. Buy a phone for a particular carrier and take whatever the carrier wants to shove down your throat.

Of course, I’m used to cell phone revolutions being cut short by the carriers. Apple ushered in a revolution of its own with the iPhone, making smartphones acceptable to the masses for the first time. But to get those smartest of phones, you had to live with AT&T. That’s the deal Apple cut, and it stopped a real transformation.

All this has really crystallized for me over the past month or so. I jumped to the new iPhone 4. Then I returned my shiny new device, because it was still crippled not by Antennagate but by AT&T’s lousy network. I’d have gone to the iPhone on Verizon, but the Apple-AT&T deal doesn’t allow that. In the meantime, I continue to use my iPhone 3G while I wait for Verizon to decide at its leisure to release the Samsung Galaxy device that I probably do want to jump to.

End result? I’m frustrated. In the six months since Google launched the Nexus One, sure, there are plenty of new Android devices. Android itself is a revolution, in that it has quickly gained adoption in a world that was feeling more and more iPhone-dominated (even if RIM devices were selling even more).

Still, I don’t feel my choices are that dramatically different. In the end, we’re still largely buying a device for a particular carrier and then living with that carrier for two years. It’s an absurd situation that we’d never tolerate with our computers.

Let me say up front that I’m not a cell phone expert. I dive deep into search and ponder phones primarily from a search perspective. So my observations here are more from a personal perspective as a cell phone user. But I think there’s still a lot of validity to them.

Would You Buy A Carrier-Dependent Computer?

Let me go back to the computer analogy. I have two laptops. One’s a Mac. One’s a PC. Neither is “carrier-dependent.” If I change my broadband provider from Time Warner to Comcast tomorrow, the laptops still work just as they always have. If I no longer need one of my laptops, I can sell it, and anyone can use it with ANY internet service provider of their choice.

Choice. That’s what this is all supposed to be about, right? Consumer choice. But what’s my consumer choice with cell phones?

Sitting on my desk, I have a Sprint EVO that I was given during Google’s I/O conference earlier this year. I can’t use that phone with T-Mobile or AT&T, because it uses the CDMA cell system. I should be able to use it on Verizon, but that would probably depend on Verizon solely deciding if it wanted to activate it. I should also be able to use it on Virgin Mobile, which is simply Virgin renting out time on Sprint’s network. But Virgin won’t activate it. I know. I asked about it.

Also on my desk is a Nexus One, another phone I was given, this time during the Nexus One launch event. That only works with T-Mobile, at least if you want 3G. If you wanted the Nexus One to work with AT&T in 3G, you had to buy a different model. And the Nexus One wouldn’t work with Sprint or Verizon, because it only had an antenna that worked with the GSM network.

Another phone on my desk is my iPhone 3G. This one, despite being out of contract — all totally bought and paid for — remains stuck with AT&T because AT&T refuses to unlock iPhones so that they can be used on other GSM networks, like T-Mobile.

Choice Means Devices That Can Move

Sure, I have a choice of mobile devices, but unlike computers, those devices will largely work with only one carrier. Even if you buy your smartphone without a contract, it’s largely a smartbrick if you change carriers.

Some smartphones are more expensive than computers, going for more than $500 out of contract. We’d never tolerate buying a “carrier-locked” computer, but with cell phones, we’re stuck. And some of that blame goes back to Google and Apple.

Apple, for its own business reasons, locked up with AT&T. You can have that iPhone in any color you want, in the US right now, as long as it’s colored AT&T. When the exclusivity finally expires, you’ll be buying a new iPhone, if you want to jump networks. And if you want to jump again, you’ll be buying yet another again.

It didn’t have to be that way. Apple could have decided anywhere along the iPhone product cycle that its phones should be capable of working on ANY network in the US. Then, if you wanted to pay the full retail price, you’d have really had choice. But it didn’t.

Oh, but the extra antennas needed would make it more expensive. Sure, a little. But if I can have a choice between a WiFi and a WiFi/3G iPad, why can’t I have a choice between a carrier-specific versus a carrier-independent iPhone? I can have amazing FaceTime, but the hardware geniuses at Apple can’t make a universal phone?

As for Google, same thing. The Nexus One came out only supporting one of the four major carriers in the US. Crazy. In addition, the idea of an ad-supported phone was nowhere to be seen. Google did nothing new or exciting in the space. What a wasted effort.

Life doesn’t have to be this way. I know, because I lived for 12 years in Britain, where all the major carriers use GSM. Want to take your expensive smartphone from T-Mobile to Orange. Take our your T-Mobile SIM card, slot in an Orange one, and you’re done. But in the US, our hybrid cell system allows carriers to restrict our choice. And the two companies that could fight to make that system more universal, Google and Apple, don’t seem to care to.

The Google Sell Out

Back to Google, it gave up on the Nexus One altogether. It no longer sells it to consumers, quitting back in May. Coincidentally, the number of Google-backed Android devices pushed by the major carriers have exploded, as Google backed off pushing its own device.

Is it any wonder that some feel Google sold out? That by giving up on its own phones, much less ad-supported ones or less expensive, carrier-interchangeable ones, it secured the support of the carriers?

Today’s great post by Ryan Singel, Why Google Became A Carrier-Humping, Net Neutrality Surrender Monkey, is the latest in many analysis pieces like this that I’ve seen recently. Be sure to read it.

Yesterday’s announcement by Google & Verizon that they both support net neutrality on wired networks but not on wireless ones is only inflaming the idea that Google’s sold out. From its sixth point:

We both recognize that wireless broadband is different from the traditional wireline world, in part because the mobile marketplace is more competitive and changing rapidly. In recognition of the still-nascent nature of the wireless broadband marketplace, under this proposal we would not now apply most of the wireline principles to wireless, except for the transparency requirement.

Are you kidding me? The mobile marketplace is MORE competitive than landline internet access? Where providers unilaterally add on $10 surcharges just because you’re using a smartphone, regardless of you actual data usage? Where you can’t take your expensive device and go elsewhere? Where they deliberately cripple parts of a smartphone’s OS? Where they decide to charge you more for using your device as a modem even if that usage still comes under the same data cap as allowed by native use of your device?

Google’s backing that? Seriously? We’re supposed to swallow that and not assume that Google’s making nice with Verizon, and by extension the other cell phone networks, in its quest to beat Apple in the cell phone operating system space?

Forget Porting Your Number

But hey, let’s ramp up the conspiracy even more. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could port your cell phone number over to Google Voice, and then in turn make it ring whatever cell phone you might currently be using?

Sure it would. In fact, Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch wrote exactly a year ago about how amazing this service was, when Google Voice enabled it for him. Google apparently promised that everyone would have access to this great feature. From the article:

Want to port your mobile number to Google Voice and do what I’ve done? You can’t just yet, but porting will be released later this year publicly. Prepare yourselves, and don’t sign any new long term contracts with your carrier. Life will soon be good for you, too.

It didn’t happen in 2009. An entire year has gone by, and it hasn’t happened. I messaged Google yesterday to find out why not. I’m still waiting to hear back.

I think it didn’t happen because it makes the carriers nervous. It’s another way that Google could help free up our dependency on them. So it seems to sit, going nowhere. Kind of like the cell phone revolution itself.

Postscript: Google spokesperson Randall Sarafa sent me this about Google Voice:

To your question: there’s no conspiracy. We’re currently working on number portability and hope to offer it to Google Voice users in the near future.


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