The March Of Mobile Phone Progress Isn't Always Smooth Or Direct
from the be-patient dept
Tim Wu is discouraged. Writing in Slate last week, the telecom expert lamented the terms he's facing as an aspiring iPhone 2 owner: a two-year AT&T contract thanks to the handset's newfound inability to be unlocked and a move toward a more conventional subsidized handset model. Wu sees this as emblematic of a shift in the mobile industry:
The fact that someone like me is switching to AT&T is a sign of the times in the telephone world. The wireless industry was once and is still sometimes called a "poster child for competition." That kind of talk needs to end.
He's right -- but then, that kind of talk shouldn't have been started in the first place. The mobile market was defined by long contracts, locked handsets and a lack of prepaid options long before Apple arrived on the scene. Now it appears that it'll remain that way long after Apple.
Admittedly, this is a disappointment. Many looked at Apple's choice of a second-rate carrier -- one they could bully around -- as a sign that everything was about to change. Finally a handset manufacturer had arisen that was powerful enough to break the industry's self-serving revenue model and empower consumers! With the recent declaration of the iPhone 2's retreat toward conventional industry shadiness, those counting on Apple's benevolent technological dictatorship have found themselves disappointed (as they have before, and no doubt will again). They were fooling themselves anyway: did anyone really think Apple was going to tolerate phone unlocking forever?
But the outlook isn't all grim. As Wu notes, the Google-led Open Handset Alliance is trying to follow in Apple's footsteps with its own game-changing, must-have handsets -- only this time there seems to be a more expressly ideological slant to the effort. And Verizon's Open Development Initiative, while less than perfect, is perhaps even more encouraging in that it shows the industry has begun to acknowledge the market's need for more flexibility in data services.
And that's the real reason for hope: the march of progress. Anyone who tries to paint the mobile industry as the picture of efficient market competition is either in denial or deeply dishonest. But wireless services will inevitably become more important and more available, whether thanks to WiMAX, revived municipal wifi projects (now without capital costs, thanks to the magic of bankruptcy!), spectrum freed by digital broadcasting, or some other wireless technology. The mobile carriers haven't been great at competing amongst themselves, but you can bet they'll begin responding once consumers have reasonable alternatives.