Sony, Cingular Get The Wrong Idea From Handset-Operator Relationships
By Mike Masnick, Wed May 11 21:30:00 GMT 2005

Handsets are often tied to the specific mobile operators (with the trade-off being that the phones are subsidized). However, will the same model work for laptops as well? It seems unlikely, but that won't stop Sony and Cingular from trying.

The issue of locking handsets to mobile operators has often been a controversial topic, even if there are some good reasons for it to happen. Often, the different network technologies make it a technology issue. However, the bigger issue may just be that more people view buying a mobile phone as buying service first, and the handset second. That's why, in most cases, the operators have really been able to own the customer.

However, that's not true with computers. More standardization, a very open internet and (most importantly) a much more flexible platform, has made it so almost no one thinks about their service provider first when buying a computer. They buy the best computer at the price that fits their needs. Connectivity comes second, and is easy to switch.

For some reason, however, Sony and Cingular seem to be ignoring this, and assuming that if people buy mobile phones locked in to operators, they'll be just as thrilled to buy a laptop tied to a single operator as well. Sony is going to build in an EDGE chip into a new Vaio laptop model. It will only work on Cingular's EDGE network.

Beyond locking in customers, which many consumers have shown they don't like, this laptop won't even offer the tradeoff that most people make in buying locked down handsets: subsidies. The Sony-Cingular laptop won't be sold with any subsidy by Cingular -- and only gives users a one month free trial of Cingular's expensive EDGE service. Building Wi-Fi into laptops made sense, because it was a clear standard that everyone was using, could be used without any cost and wasn't tied to any particular provider. That's not true with this offering.

On top of all this, Cingular is working feverishly to upgrade from EDGE to HSDPA. While it will still be at least a year before it's ready to offer HSDPA service, anyone buying this laptop will be buying into soon-to-be obsolete technology, without any means of upgrading. In other words, it seems like there's almost no benefit to this offering at all. It sounds like it was cooked up by a team of people who saw the lock-in driven by handsets, and didn't stop to think why nothing similar was being done in the computer world. However, if mobile operators are really going to be the ISPs of the future with their mobile data offerings, they're going to have to realize that people are going to expect them to act like an ISP, not a mobile operator. This move suggests that Cingular doesn't quite realize that yet.