Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why Is Your Smart Phone Is So Stupid?

Brian Caulfield of Forbes magazine wrote a short piece posing the question: Why Is Your Smart Phone Is So Stupid? See He answers the question by reporting that the carriers disable the handsets in an attempt to prevent revenue drainage which would occur, for example, if iPhone subscribers could use Skype outside of the islands of Wi-Fi access.

Mr. Caulfield also suggests that handset lock downs and lock outs constitute the price we pay for subsidized handsets. Okay so far. But he concludes with the view that consumers simply will not pay for unsubsidized handsets and as a result insufficient numbers of such devices exist to encourage applications engineers to write programs for them.

First, make no mistake about it: wireless subscribers surely do pay for their handsets. Wireless carriers do not operate as charities and price their services so that they recoup the subsidy. As I have noted previously, one cannot get discounted service even when using unsubsidized handsets. Second, wireless carriers recognize that they can reduce churn and price sensitivity when they lock subscribers in for two years by offering a “sweet” deal for the latest and greatest handset. Better yet, these new devices have features that might generate additional revenues.

At best wireless carriers are co-dependent, facilitators of Mr. Caulfield’s observation that no one will pay “full price” for a smart phone. At worse, these carriers deliberately dumb down the wireless experience to reduce expectations of what such networks can offer and what handsets can do.

Anyone who has traveled to Asia marvels at the digital divide in handset functionality. Might the lack of features and functionality adversely affect national productivity, or are we just better off for not having many of the standard features Asian handsets offer?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

WSJ Editorial on Wireless Handset Exclusivity

The Wall Street Journal has extended its record for knee jerk corporate boosterism and extreme snarkiness, this time rejecting any need to scrutinize the wireless industry. See The Journal waxes poetic about the competitiveness and innovativeness of the industry, but surprisingly reports in its editorial that the top four wireless carriers in the U.S. control 87.4% of the market.

Down here at the consumer level, we know that the Big Four mimic each other in prices, terms, conditions, and even in their advertisements. As the wireless market reaches maturity, the carriers still pitch how reliable their service has become and the niftiness of their exclusive handsets.

Innovative? The Big Four—and for that matter the entire industry, except for resellers-- apply a single business model that ties wireless service with subsidized wireless handset sales. Consumers may think they are getting a great deal, but in reality they pay more for the handset through higher monthly rates than if they simply had bought the handset without the subsidy. No carrier offers lower rates for new or existing subscribers who use unsubsidized handsets. The handset tie-in reduces churn and guarantees the subsidy pay back and more thanks to the two year service lock in.

What I do not understand is why consumers do not push back more strongly. On the front page of the Journal was an article about how a teenage has hacked the iPhone 3GS to accept unauthorized software. So some consumers can resort to self help. For everyone else, the allure of 30,000—count ‘em—software applications appears plenty. But if I asked most personal computer users if they would tolerate Dell or Comcast specifying the type and number of applications consumers could download, I think the response would be different. Smartphones have become handheld personal computers. Users of wireless handsets should have the same freedom to access software and services, limited only by a “harm to the network” and technical compatibility standard.

Currently, wireless manufacturers, such as Nokia, only have two major sales outlets: 1) the wireless carriers, which sell 60+% of all handsets; and 2) Big Box stores such as Best Buy and Walmart, which sell about 25% of all handsets. Think of the incentives to innovate and diversify if consumers could buy wireless devices through the many different channels available for wirebased devices. When the FCC forty years ago decoupled wireline services from handsets, a substantial boost in innovation and consumer choice arose.