Handset Complaints Go Mainstream
By Carlo Longino, Thu Jun 02 23:00:00 GMT 2005

It's nothing new for anybody familiar with the mobile industry, but one of the US' most widely read personal technology writers is railing on operators there for hobbling handsets.

Adverse reactions to handset unlockers, enthusiasm for walled gardens and a general disregard for openness: these sorts of carrier actions and attitudes aren't too surprising to readers of this site or anybody that follows the mobile industry, but the messages generally don't resonate to the wider public. Sure, there's users suing over crippled Bluetooth, or consumer-group complaints about locked handsets, but the average Joe Consumer probably doesn't notice too much.

So when probably the most influential and widely read personal technology columnist in the US takes carriers to task for "hampering innovation" by wielding excessive power over what handsets they sell and what features they disable, there's a good chance some of those average Joes may take some notice.

Walt Mossberg absolutely excoriates US carriers, citing Steve Jobs' recent comment at a conference calling the country's four top operators the "four orifices", while using a colorful metaphor of his own to call them "the new Soviet ministries, because they are reminiscent of the Communist bureaucracies in Russia that stood athwart the free market for decades. Like the real Soviet ministries, these technology middlemen too often believe they can decide better than the market what goods consumers need."

His main point -- and a valid one -- is that carriers use the "we need to protect our network" line to simply stifle innovation and keep everything that comes within reach of their networks under their control and working only to their benefit. Mossberg says any company that wants to sell handsets directly to the public should be able to do so, and consumers should be able to buy handsets and service separately. He does acknowledge handset prices are helped down by carrier subsidies, and with some not-atypical American mobile misunderstanding doesn't seem to realize that type of thing is possible with GSM devices, but the point stands -- carriers pretty much don't want and are loath, if not completely unwilling, to support them.

It's hard to argue that carriers are artificially inflating the prices of handsets, and after all, everybody likes free phones. But Walt's got a point: why can't users just choose what they want? It goes beyond just handsets, and extends to services, too. Consumers buy a handset and pay for service; then a carrier determines what goes on their device.

Three things are eroding this: first, the mass marketing of third-party services (as evidenced by the ubiquitous ads of Jamba/Jamster) that increase awareness among consumers that operators aren't their only option for content. Second is the growing penetration of smartphones and other devices with Bluetooth or other connectivity options that let users route around the operator network. Finally, virtual operators that emphasize customer service and clear tariffs. It's no coincidence that unless they figure out a way to profit from these factors, operators have no problem trying to strangle them.

The good thing about this is that like with DRM, all it sometimes takes is one company to act in the interest of consumers to break up the system. While this column may not be a revolutionary point, it will raise the profile of the situation. And with that raised profile, comes the possibility that things will begin to change.