Tuesday, December 1, 2009

(empo-tymshft) In defense of modern phones (but Dave Winer is still right)

(Disclosure: I was a Motorola employee for nearly a decade, but not in their mobile phone division.)

I've been musing about something that Dave Winer wrote in his Droidie blog on Monday. Here's an excerpt:

The first phone I used had a rotary dial and rang with a bell, you know a clapper hitting a piece of metal, controlled by an electro-magnet. The funny thing about those phones — they worked.

Today’s phones are marvels of technology. I love them. But they all suck. iPhones suck. Blackberries suck. The disposable phone you buy at the convenience store sucks and yes my dear friends, the Droid sucks too.

I'm about Dave's age, and I remember those phones also. When my parents and I moved into a house, the phone was already there, attached to the wall. And Dave's right - those phones were sturdier than the phones that we have today.

But in all fairness to modern phone manufacturers, today's phones are asked to do more than the phones of old.

As I mentioned, the phone of old was attached to a wall by a cord. And although wear and tear could certainly occur back then, it was nothing like the wear and tear phones are subjected to today. Back then I wouldn't have thrown the phone in my pocket, and I certainly wouldn't have thrown it into a computer bag, in part because back then any bag that would hold a computer would have been quite large. And even if I had an advanced phone that had push buttons instead of a rotary dial, the phone (or at least the one we had in our house) didn't have a headphone jack, and it didn't have QWERTY keys, and it certainly didn't have a screen that could display text...or pictures.

Now today's phone manufacturers could certainly build phones that are as sturdy as the phones of yesteryear, and in fact some of them do. But most people would never buy them because of another huge change that has happened since the 1960s and 1970s - namely, the breakup of AT&T.

Now the telephone business environment before 1982-1984 was not a perfect monopoly. Not everyone had service from Ma Bell; people in some areas got their service from companies like Continental Telephone, which later became part of GTE, which later became part of Verizon.

And the telephone business environment after 1982-1984 is not perfect competition; technically, the term "oligopoly" more accurately describes the situation, if you discount the fact that the major phone manufacturers and services themselves are running into competition from new players such as Skype. But there IS competition today, and that's a major difference from the days of yesteryear.

When our family moved into our house in 1973, we didn't shop the market and select the brand of phone that we wanted. We didn't have a lot of choice in the matter.

Today, of course, we have choice - and with choice comes downward price pressure. Our family just got a phone for less than $60 (plus tax, plus a two-year service commitment). I'm sure that we could have gotten a really sturdy phone that would have brought tears of happiness to Dave Winer's eyes - but we wouldn't have gotten it for $60. So we, and millions of other families, chose the cheap phone that sucks rather than getting the sturdy phone that didn't suck.

If such a beast even exists today. Other than the military and public safety markets, would anyone fork out the bucks for a sturdy phone?

(Picture source, license)
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