Archive for the ‘Cellular’ Category

Why I Don’t Have a Palm Pre Yet

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

June 6th was the launch date for the Palm Pre, the heavily hyped new smartphone from Palm and Sprint.  What I really want in a phone is something that matches the elegance and simplicity of the user interface on Apple’s iPhone, but still includes a physical keyboard and multitasking capabilities.  The Pre appears to be a very close fit, almost certainly much better than the Windows-mobile based HTC Touch Pro that I bought last year.

I definitely tend to be an early-adopter on new gadgets, so it certainly wouldn’t have been surprising if I had run out to buy a Pre last weekend.  In fact, I would have very much liked to have made that purchase.  Unfortunately, I’m already a Sprint customer and, as I mentioned earlier, I purchased a new phone last year.  Because of this, I am not currently eligible for upgrade pricing, which means that any phone purchased now would cost me considerably higher than the new or upgrade eligible customer pricing, which, of course, is the pricing that Sprint and Palm are advertising publicly.

I am, of course, under a 2-year contract with Sprint that was a necessary condition for the purchase of my last phone.  I completely recognize the validity and legality of that contract and that it is the underlying reason why I am not eligible for upgrading without a price penalty.  My purpose in this post is not to argue that my situation is somehow unfair or that I am being denied an entitlement.  I never had any expectation of being able to upgrade early and I don’t believe that there is anything unethical, much less illegal, about the system.

What I do question pretty strongly is whether or not the current business model used by the cell phone industry is a correct one in today’s marketplace.  Particularly since Apple has turned the smartphone into a much more mainstream product with the iPhone, the industry has entered a phase of extremely rapid growth and enhanced competition with frequent introduction of new models with desirable new features.  I strongly question whether customers are going to continue to be willing to accept a system that requires a 2 year wait between upgrades.

I had initially started thinking about this as subject for a blog post after getting into a Twitter discussion of it during the day of the Pre launch.  I got busy with other things and didn’t find time to start working on it until later.  In the meantime, this became a very hot subject generating a lot of coverage both in blogs and the mainstream press after Apple announced the third-generation version of the iPhone and AT&T revealed that the lower pricing would not be available to current iPhone owners that are still under contract.  This is a change from the approach taken with the last version of the iPhone, which was offered at the new-customer price to owners of the previous version, regardless of contract status.

The central idea behind current business model used by the cell phone industry is that the carriers subsidize a portion of the purchase price for the phone in exchange for the customer committing to a service contract, generally for 2 years.  If the customer chooses to switch carriers before the contract is up, he/she is obligated to pay a fairly substantial fee to buy out the contract.  Most carriers offer the customer the option of a smaller discount on an a new phone half way through the contract.  After the contract expires, the customer is generally eligible to again get the same subsidy offered to a new subscriber.

The contract system eliminates a lot of the need for carriers to expend much effort in customer retention, outside of the discounted phones offered at the end of the contract.  This likely saves the companies a lot of money, but is also almost certainly the biggest contributor to the industry’s reputation for poor customer service.  I have found that no matter which of the big cell phone carriers is mentioned, it doesn’t take long for someone to start telling stories about their horrible experiences.

It is in the best interest of the cellular carriers for most phones to have non-subsidized prices that are prohibitively high for most people since, otherwise, it is a safe bet that most people would forgo the contract.  This would make it much easier for customers to switch carriers at will and, thus, would greatly increase the cost and effort that the companies would have to expend towards retention.  I have little doubt that this would dramatically improve the quality of the customer experience, but it might or might not have a negative impact on profitability.

The big question is whether or not the non-subsidized prices really reflect the true cost of a cell phone or if they are kept artificially inflated by the cell phone manufacturers as a result of the subsidy-based sales model.  I admit that I have no direct knowledge, but my educated speculation is that the subsidized prices are probably more realistic.  The non-subsidized prices for phones (especially smartphones) simply seem way out of proportion with the pricing for other portable electronics.  In most cases, those prices are pretty close to what you would pay for a full-featured laptop computer and considerably higher than netbooks, stand-alone PDAs, or portable media players, any of which would seem more comparable technology.

The most obvious direct comparison would really be between the iPhone and the iPod Touch, which is basically an iPhone without the cellular radio or camera.  The pricing information for the 16GB version of the new iPhone 3GS has indicated that it costs $199 fully-subsidized (the price widely advertised), $399 for customers 1-year into their 2-year contract, or $599 un-subsidized.  The suggested retail price of the 16GB iPod Touch is $299 and it can be found in the $260-$275 range if you shop around.  I can certainly see where the added features of the iPhone would justify a higher price, but does it really make sense that they would double it?

In all fairness, my instinct looking at those numbers is that the $399 price offered after 1-year is probably the most realistic one.  While I suspect the price on the iPod Touch is also a bit inflated (it doesn’t really have direct competitors), it really does look like the $199 price probably brings in a pretty thin profit margin, if there is any at all.  The same is probably true with the similarly priced Palm Pre, although it does also have somewhat lighter specs, including only 8GB of memory. Even if the subsidies do push the prices down below the actual cost of the phone, I can still see justification for why the carriers might want to subsidize even for existing customers still under contract in order to prolong their contract and help to ensure loyalty.

I think that they might want to look to the satellite TV business as a possible example.  I’ve been a DirecTV customer for a number of years and they also use a system of contracts and subsidized equipment.  The big difference from the cellular business, though, is that DirecTV lets current customers upgrade their equipment (such as going to a DVR or hi-definition) at the fully subsidized price no matter how far they are into a contract.  The one catch is that doing so will reset their contractual start date to the date of the upgrade.  This helps to accommodate any need that the customer might have to move up to something better or different, while also pushing further back the date at which he/she might be able to switch to a competitor.

I do imagine that the cellular industry would probably prefer to stick with the current fairly customer-unfriendly system for as long as possible, but I do seem some recent signs that they may very well be changing their approach.  The recent publicity over AT&T’s prices for iPhone upgrades hasn’t been very good for them, even if they are pretty clearly within their rights.  A fan base as loyal as the more vocal iPhone owners, particularly when they are so willing to spend more money to make sure they have the latest and greatest, really does need to be cultivated and protected.  Policies that seem to directly target those loyal customers may not be in the company’s best interest, even if they appear to be the most financially prudent on the surface.

Another interesting development is Sprint’s recent introduction of the Sprint Premier loyalty program.  Customers that have achieved high longevity (10 years or more) or have one of the higher-end service plans (priced over $69.99/month, a fairly common price point for a smartphone with both a voice and data plan) are automatically enrolled in that program.  While the program offers a number of smaller benefits, the big one is that those customers are eligible for the fully-subsidized upgrade price at the end of the first year of a 2-year contract.  While Sprint’s recent issues with customer retention probably made this more necessary for them, it still is a pretty clear acknowledgement that higher-end customers are increasingly unwilling to wait 2 years between upgrades.

HTC Touch Pro from Sprint Delayed

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

It appears that the release date for the HTC Touch Pro from Sprint has been pushed back from October 19th to November 2nd.  My employer is associated with Sprint’s Employee Value Program (EVP), which started taking pre-orders on the phone last week.  I placed an order with them right away and just received an email informing me of the availability date change.  Since the EVP program is essentially a mechanism for the company to reward their largest business customers, it is pretty unlikely that the phone would be available from the consumer mail-order or the Sprint stores earlier.

I did a little searching online and found this very long thread on the PPCGeeks discussion boards in which quite a few other people confirm from a variety of sources that November 2nd is now the expected release date.  There is some discussion that Best Buy stores might get an exclusive on the phone one week earlier, although there is also a fair amount of speculation that the stores may have simply not yet gotten around to changing the release date.

Hopefully the date won’t slip any further and I will have my new phone some time during the first week of next month.  I’ve already ordered several accessories (8GB micro-SD card, cradle, extra charger and sync cable, and a car kit) so I hopefully will be well prepared once it arrives.

T-Mobile G1 – The First Google Android Phone

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

The big news in the technology press today is the announcement of the T-Mobile G1, the first cell phone to run Google’s open-source Android operating system.  It is an intriguing product and it looks to me like Android could turn into a major player in the cell phone business, although I can’t say that I’m ready to jump on board just yet.

Generally, I like the design of the phone itself.  It is made by HTC and, in a number of ways, it resembles the HTC Touch Pro, which I’ve previously mentioned as my most-likely next phone.  I suspect that the combination of a large touch-screen and a slide-out keyboard is going to be a pretty common and popular design among those of us that aren’t as enamored with the iPhone’s touch-only interface.  I’ve seen a few comments online complaining that the G1 isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing phone to come along, but I generally think it looks ok.  Admittedly, it does seem to be designed more for functionality than as a style accessory, though.

While the screen shots and descriptions of Android look pretty good, my immediate impression is that this is definitely a very immature platform and I just can’t see jumping on board before it becomes a bit more established.  Today’s announcement actually did a pretty good job of hammering that home as they openly admitted that such features as Microsoft Exchange and stereo Bluetooth support would not be available at launch but could be made available later via third-party applications.  With the open-source nature of Android, I would bet on those features becoming available sooner rather than later, but it is anyone’s guess as to how long it will really take as well as how soon those features will have the stability and maturity of their equivalents on other platforms.

Sometimes, I am interested in being an early-adopter on new technologies and platforms, but I do also have to look at utility as well.  The G1 is a pretty attractive product and I suspect that Android could have a significant future.  The way that the cellular industry works with the subsidized phones in exchange for extended contracts, I expect that it will be at least 2 years before I give Android any serious consideration.

HTC Touch Pro – Probably My Next Smartphone

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

My current contract with Sprint expired at the beginning of this month, meaning that I am now eligible for the best-available discounts on an upgrade for my aging Palm Treo 700P.  Over the last few months, I have been looking at a number of cell phone options and have largely settled on the HTC Touch Pro as my next phone. 

I have been a long-time Palm OS user, so I admit that it is with a little bit of trepidation, and even sadness, that I make plans to switch to a Windows Mobile device.  The simple truth, though, is that development on the Palm OS has essentially stalled for several years and it is now severely behind in almost every aspect.  While updated versions from either Palm (which is promising a new, compatible OS) or Access (which ended up with ownership of the code base) or both are promised in the next year or so, these are still vaporware and I just don’t see continuing to live with yesterday’s technology while waiting around.  I do hope that I can ease the transition just a bit by getting StyleTap to allow at least some of my old Palm OS applications to still run.

While the HTC Touch Pro has been available outside the US for a while, it has only been available here as an expensive ($800 or more), unlocked GSM import that would work on AT&T or T-Mobile, although not always with full compatibility with the highest-speed networks.  Fortunately, the first official US version of the phone was announced today for availability via Sprint on October 19th.  Their press release describes it as follows:

HTC Touch Pro: HTC Touch Pro is a professional workhorse that enables mobile professionals to easily balance their professional and personal lives. Along with the features available on HTC Touch Diamond, HTC Touch Pro adds a five-row, slide-out QWERTY keyboard for easy data entry, expandable storage capabilities with a microSD card slot (1 GB card included) and a business card scanner application to automatically capture and convert business card information to contacts using the built-in 3.2 MP camera/camcorder. Additionally, with Windows Mobile 6.1, users have access to security and device management capabilities desired by most business customers when used with Microsoft’s System Center Mobile Device Manager solution. HTC Touch Pro will be available Oct. 19 for $299.99 with a two-year contract and after a $100 mail-in rebate.

The price really sounds right to me for a fairly high-end phone and its availability through Sprint is appealing as I’ve been satisfied with their service over the last couple years and I’m happy to avoid the hassles involved with changing carriers and porting my number. 

Here are a few of the key points about this phone that appeal to me over some of the key competitors in the same basic category:

  1. Keyboard: Every time I have purchased a portable computing device that did not have a keyboard (i.e. Palm VII, Palm LifeDrive, TabletKiosk eo v7110), I have replaced it within a year or so with one that did.  At some point, I feel like I have to accept the lesson and stick with what works best for me.  If Apple had an iPhone with a slide-out keyboard, I’d give it some serious consideration, but that just doesn’t exist now.  This is also the reason why I immediately sparked to the Touch Pro instead of the otherwise nearly-identical Touch Diamond.
  2. Large touch-screen: I really like the approach of retaining a large, VGA-resolution touch-screen via the use of a slide-out keyboard.  Sure, it adds a little bit of bulk to the phone (the Touch Pro is still smaller than my Treo), but I feel it is worth it to avoid compromise.  This is a big reason why I have decided against Palm’s latest Windows Mobile Treo models, despite otherwise impressive feature sets.
  3. Price/Network: As I said, I’ve been happy with Sprint and am willing to accept another contract in order to get the much lower subsidized price.  While conceptually I like the SIM card approach used on GSM phones, it didn’t make much difference to me back when I had AT&T (or Cingular) and I don’t think it would matter much now.  I just don’t need to switch phones often (especially at the unsubsidized prices) and I very rarely travel outside the US, something I don’t anticipate changing in the next 2 years.
  4. Overall feature set: Right now, the Touch Pro is pretty close to being the top-of-the-line for Windows Mobile phones and it really does seem to be the one model out there on any OS that seems to have just about every feature that I want.

Since the phone won’t be available for a little over a month, I do still have some time to look around at other options as well as to see if anyone announces something else that might be a better fit.  I pretty strongly suspect, though, that this blog will start featuring postings about my experiences with my new Touch Pro come mid-October.

My Inventory of Computer Equipment

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

I figure this is a good time to give an inventory of my home computer equipment.  I’m only listing personal stuff here, not my work computers.  I’m also only listing the items that are in active use currently.  We have quite a bit of older equipment in closets or on shelves around here as well.

1. Home-built Desktop PC: I haven’t purchased a desktop computer for over 10-years.  Instead, I build my own system from individual parts, occasionally upgrading when the pricing and my needs dictate.  My current system has an Intel 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 3GB of memory, 1.5TB of hard disk space (spread across 4 drives), NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GTS video card, and a Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi sound card.  The OS is Windows Vista Ultimate 64-Bit.

2. Vye S37: This is my every-day laptop.  It is a mini-tablet UMPC with a 7-inch touch-screen, a nearly full-sized keyboard, 250GB hard drive, and 2GB of RAM.  It is running Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit.  I’ve written several previous articles about this device on the previous version of this blog.

3. Apple MacBook: This is primarily my wife’s laptop computer, although I do use it occasionally as well.  This is the newest computer in our collection, having just purchased it a few weeks ago after the power supply died on her old HP laptop.  I’ve never been a big fan of the Mac OS, but we felt that it might fit my wife’s needs much better than Windows.  So far, she has been very happy with it.

4. HP EX470 MediaSmart Home Server: This unit is our primary backup and centralized file storage device.  We also use it as a media server.  This system runs Microsoft’s Windows Home Server OS and I have upgraded it from its stock configuration of 500GB hard disk space and 256MB of RAM to 2.25TB of hard disk storage and 2GB of RAM.

5. Palm Treo 700P (Sprint): My current cell-phone/PDA is the latest in a series of Palm OS devices that I have owned.  I am nearing the end of my current contract with Sprint and will be eligible for the best upgrade rates on a new phone starting September 1.  I’m starting to evaluate options for new phones (a topic for another article) and probably am ready to finally move away from the Palm OS.

6. Sony Playstation 3: Although I do use the PS3 for some game playing, it was actually purchased primarily because it is generally the best currently available choice for a Blu-Ray video player.  The PS3 is located in the upstairs bedroom and is also used to stream music up there from the home server.

7. HP OfficeJet 7410: This is an "all-in-one" color ink-jet printer that also works as a scanner, copier, and fax machine.  A big motivator for purchasing this particular printer was that it has built-in wi-fi networking.  That let us put the printer up in the bedroom (out of easy reach of our preschooler) and still send print jobs to it from the desktop computer downstairs as well as from any of the laptops.  While it is now a somewhat older, discontinued model, it still works pretty well for us.

8. D-Link DIR-655: This router is the centralized networking device for our home network.  It is a fairly new wireless router that includes draft 802.11n high-speed networking.  The desktop PC and home server are both directly connected to the router, while the laptops, PS3, printer, and our DirecTV HD-DVR are all set up to connect to it wirelessly.  The router is connected to a DSL modem with service from DSL Extreme with 6000/768Kbps download/upload speeds.

The Future of Palm

Monday, November 5th, 2007

As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I have been a long-time user of Palm OS devices, starting with the Palm V PDA and going all the way up to my current Palm Treo 700p smartphone.  I have a great deal invested in Palm OS software as well as the high comfort level that comes from extensive experience, which makes me very hesitant to move on to another system.

I know find myself very seriously considering just such a move.  The current version of the Palm OS (or "Garnet" as it is now called) is getting very long in the tooth and I’m increasingly coming across applications that I simply can’t get on that platform.  I’m becoming very envious of applications like the mobile versions of Newsgator, OneNote, Opera, and others that are available on other platforms, but not on the Palm.  Such basic functionality as true multitasking or support for wifi and cellular networking on the same device is also becoming conspicuous in absence.

Like many Palm OS users, I’ve long been waiting for a next generation of the OS to come along, but without seeing it materialize.  In recent months, Palm has promised that they are preparing a substantial upgrade to the OS which will shift it to a Linux kernel.  We have seen similar promises from Access, which bought out Palmsource (the OS development spin-off from Palm) a while back.  Those hopes appear to again be getting dashed, though, as Palm is now promising a mid-2009 launch for their updated OS and Access doesn’t seem to be generating any interest in the US for their system.

Clearly, mid-2009 is a very long time in a rapid-growth industry.  By that time, the current leaders in the smartphone industry such as Windows Mobile and Symbian will have continued to advance with new features, devices, and refined user-interfaces.  Apple is also expected to open up the iPhone to 3rd-party developers in early 2008 and it is also pretty likely that they will put out a second-generation device some time next year.  Finally, Google announced today their Android operating system and mobile software platform, which should start to appear on devices towards the end of 2008.  With all that on its way, I suspect that a very large percentage of current Palm OS device users will have moved on to a different platform by the time Palm’s new OS is ready in 2009.


Inevitable iPhone Post

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

It is tempting to leave this site as possibly the only technology-oriented site on the web not to post anything about the Apple iPhone, but I just can’t quite resist the temptation to throw in my 2-cents worth. As tomorrow’s official release approaches and the press coverage grows more breathlessly excited, I can’t help but feel that this is one of the strangest and most puzzling major product releases I’ve ever seen.

Apple fans understandably bristle at the suggestion that their devotion seems to be directed to the brand more than the irproducts’ capabilities and value. As I see reports of people lining up for hours or even days on end to be the first to get their hands on an iPhone, though, it is hard to escape this perception of an almost cult-like devotion. If Nokia, Motorola, Palm, or pretty much any other company released a phone with this feature set and pricing, I truly doubt much attention would be paid to it, other than to note the clear disparity between the price and feature set. Since the iPhone is Apple, though, we have the mainstream press essentially going nuts over the product and members of the general public lining up for it as if they were buying tickets to a major one-night-only concert. It really makes very little sense.

From the early reviews, the iPhone looks like a pretty decent first-generation product. The user-interface looks inventive and the feature set sounds decent, although not spectacular. I strongly suspect that the iPhone would easily be one of the very best $100 phones on the market and would at least be competitive in the $200-$250 range. That overall range would put it in the company of other consumer-focused, media-centric phones, particularly those designed for slower, pre-3G data networks. The iPhone isn’t coming out in that price range, though. It is going to cost $500 for the lower-end model and $600 for the version with more storage. In addition, the phone is going to be locked to only work on AT&T’s cellular network and customers are going to be required to commit to a 2-year contract, starting at a minimum of $60/months. Requirements like this are pretty standard for heavily-discounted phones with their cost partly subsidized by the carrier, but that seems highly unlikely to be the case at the prices being charged.

Apple’s attempts to justify the high price have been laughable, and it is disheartening to see some fans echoing them. One frequently repeated official explanation has been that the price makes sense because it is roughly the same amount you would pay to purchase both an iPod and a smartphone. The big problem is that pretty much every Palm, Windows Mobile, and Symbian smartphone released over the last few years already has media playback capabilities that rival any iPod and even many low-end cell phones (in the less than $100 price range) today have music-playback.. For audio, my Palm OS Treo can play MP3, WMA (including “Plays-for-sure” DRM tracks), AAC (unprotected), OGG-Vorbis, WAV, and Audible. The only thing the iPhone will really add (besides Apple’s user-interface design) is DRM-encoded files from iTunes, but that’s at the cost of losing support for WMA and OGG-Vorbis (and possibly Audible as well). Video capability is also widely available in many current devices, although I do give the iPhone a slight potential advantage for having a screen that is above average in size and resolution. Other phones on faster 3G networks will certainly be better suited for streaming audio and video than the iPhone is likely to be.

Another excuse given for the price has been to point out that iPods were also much higher priced when they came out than they are today. The iPhone launch really isn’t comparable to the iPod launch. While neither is the first device of its kind, the iPod was entering a very immature market and was not priced substantially higher than similar devices available at the time. It certainly wasn’t priced $200 or more higher than many devices with substantially more features, as is the case with the iPhone.

Much of the coverage for the iPhone is depicting it as being completely revolutionary. Even my initial impressions from the same day coverage of Steve Jobs’ presentation introducing the phone were that most features really should only seem revolutionary to those that do not have much familiarity with current smartphones and, especially, UMPCs. This may actually be the real story here. The iPhone appears so revolutionary to many people simply because Apple is much better at getting the word out about their product than the current players in the mobile technology space. Apple has long been very successful at cultivating attention from the mainstream press and at using their loyal fanbase to spread the word.

In the long run, skillful marketing and promotion may be the one true revolution that the iPhone is going to bring to the industry. Eventually, the major shortcomings of the iPhone are going to fade into the past as prices come down and later generations add missing features and refine those that fall short. The whole industry is going to have to become better at telling the world about what their products are capable of if they truly hope to compete. Hopefully that will happen and Apple will eventually be pushed to bring the pricing and feature set of their product into a more realistic territory.