Live By Vendors, Die By Vendors
By Carlo Longino, Thu Mar 24 04:30:00 GMT 2005

Sure, operators have beaten handset vendors into submission over branding and customization. But T-Mobile USA is feeling the flip side of that.

Handset vendors went toe-to-toe with mobile operators over that ever-elusive ownership of the customer. But in a world where operators sell the bulk of handsets to end users and Asian OEMs are churning out high-quality white-label devices, it was never a battle they were going to win. But what happens when something goes wrong with the devices on which carriers fought so hard to get their name displayed? T-Mobile USA's found out over the last couple weeks.

It all started with the supposed hacking several weeks back of Paris Hilton's Danger Hiptop device. Only since the Hiptop is the ultimate carrier-locked handset, it was referred to everywhere as the T-Mobile Sidekick. And never mind that it looks like the culprit of any nefarious activity were Danger's Web servers rather than anything belonging to T-Mobile, it's the carrier's name that got all the notoriety. It's doubtful T-Mo minded this one too much, since evidently Sidekick sales skyrocketed after the debacle.

What stung a lot more, though, was the massive service outage just a little while later, also reportedly a problem with Danger's servers that are the key to the device's functionality. Again, the Hiptop has been so strongly branded, that it essentially becomes a T-Mobile device, for better or, in this case, for worse. After several days (and just in time for T-Mobile to announce it would begin selling the Sidekick in its home German market), the issue was resolved. But it caused T-Mobile USA enough headaches that it ended up giving each of its Sidekick subscribers a $20 credit.

It's doubtful T-Mo is footing that bill all on its own, and Danger is left denying rumors that the operator has given it an ultimatum to sort out its security woes. But whose brand took the hit? Probably not Danger, who's happy to hide behind the carrier, again, for better or worse.

It must not be T-Mobile USA's week. Reports have also emerged that the company has quit selling the HP iPAQ 6315, another exclusive device, because of software problems. Users of the device are being given replacement BlackBerry or Treo devices and a service credit, with sales reportedly halted until T-Mobile and HP can deliver a software upgrade to solve some unspecified issues.

This device, too, has T-Mobile's name and logo slathered all over it, as a result of the big customer-ownership battle, and essentially every one in use was bought via T-Mobile or one of its dealers. So who takes the brunt of customers' disdain? Chances are it's T-Mobile well before HP.

Operators are in a place to demand respect from device manufacturers. But they must understand it puts them in the firing line with customers as well.