Phoney Wars

The Wall Street Journal's technology correspondent recently invoked America's favourite bogeyman, Soviet communism, to describe the American cell-phone industry. And despite (or because of) my association with the wireless business, I have to agree that the stranglehold imposed by network carriers on handset manufacturers is as stifling and outdated as Microsoft's monopoly on the personal computer experience before the advent of the open-source revolution led by Linux.

Friends and family I meet in India or Europe are invariably surprised to see a cell-phone carrier's name on my phone instead of the logo of a Blackberry or a Palm or a Motorola. Indeed, not only does an American carrier dictate a common uniform interface from their wide variety of vendors, but they also call the shots on what applications are allowed on the phone. Their argument that the download of third-party software may cause unpredictable results and increase call volume to to their customer service (the most reviled among all public utilities), is ingenious at best.

Actually, the entire relationship between cell-phone carriers, handset manufacturers and the end-user is archaic and in need of an overhaul in America. At present, the cost of a new handset is subsidised by the carrier, who in exchange binds the customer into a two-year contract guaranteeing a steady source of revenue for the period. The loser is not only the customer (who needs to pay an early termination fee should she want to bail out because of poor service), but the telecommunications market as a whole, since manufacturers have no incentive to innovate and cut production costs like they have done elsewhere in the world. It is ironic that in the absence of subsidies, a mobile handset in the citadel of capitalism is, without exception, more expensive than the same model in communist China!

Apple had a golden opportunity to break through this incestuous relationship when they launched the iPhone earlier this year. In fact, while they appropriated the freedom to design the interface away from the carrier, they introduced their own idiosyncrasies-- their delay in releasing the software development kit (SDK) for the iPhone has prevented programmers from writing applications for it. More importantly, by aligning themselves with a single service provider, they squandered away the prospect of having a subscriber buy an unlocked world-band iPhone at an Apple Store and activating it with the network of her choice.

Google, the other great purveyor of freedom, has kept rumour-mongers busy with hints of their Android operating system which promises to offer the programming capabilities offered by Palm and Windows Mobile, but without their frequent crashes. Having already signed into an agreement with the company rolling out a nationwide WiMAX network in America, it is only natural that they should want to tap the vast 3G market as well. Despite the associated concerns with privacy (don't be surprised to receive targeted text messages based on your location and web-browsing history!), an open standard from Google may be just the catalyst needed to shake up the carriers from their self-imposed stupor.

O misery, misery, mumble and moan!
Someone invented the telephone,
And interrupted a nation's slumbers,
Ringing wrong but similar numbers.
Ogden Nash, Look What You Did, Christopher!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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