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Making Sense of the Cellphone Landscape 185

Posted by kdawson
from the handbags-at-dawn dept.
Charlie Stross has a blog post up that tries to make sense of the mobile phone market and where it's going: where Apple, Google, and the cellcos fit in, and what the point of Google's Nexus One may be. "Becoming a pure bandwidth provider is every cellco's nightmare: it levels the playing field and puts them in direct competition with their peers, a competition that can only be won by throwing huge amounts of capital infrastructure at their backbone network. So for the past five years or more, they've been doing their best not to get dragged into a game of beggar-my-neighbor, by expedients such as exclusive handset deals... [Google intends] to turn 3G data service (and subsequently, LTE) into a commodity, like Wi-Fi hotspot service only more widespread and cheaper to get at. They want to get consumers to buy unlocked SIM-free handsets and pick cheap data SIMs. They'd love to move everyone to cheap data SIMs rather than the hideously convoluted legacy voice stacks maintained by the telcos; then they could piggyback Google Voice on it, and ultimately do the Google thing to all your voice messages as well as your email and web access. (This is, needless to say, going to bring them into conflict with Apple. ... Apple are an implicit threat to Google because Google can't slap their ads all over [the App and iTunes stores]. So it's going to end in handbags at dawn... eventually.)"
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Making Sense of the Cellphone Landscape

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  • I Just Did... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by LearnToSpell (694184) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @02:57AM (#30502540) Homepage
    Picked up an N900. T-Mobile unlimited for 10 bucks a month. Could probably get away without it anyway, since there's so many open hotspots around in NY. I hate AT&T. Hate Verizon. Probably hate T-Mobile in a month. :-) There's no way I want to pay 80-120 bucks a month though. Ridiculous.
    • Re:I Just Did... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sznupi (719324) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @04:38AM (#30502808) Homepage

      Yes, and no mention of Nokia in the summary (and quite dismissive in TFA).

      It's not only about Maemo, it's about a phone manufacturer that has 40% of total market (of which smartphones are what, 15 - 20% now? Why do you talk only about them?). Over 50% of smartphone market. The only phone manufacturer that keeps itself comfortable financially (others are either struggling or mobile phones aren't their main product; except RIM perhaps, but they sell corporate service rather than phones). Only one their product (1100) is the most popular consumer electronic device in history, it vastly outsold families (like "iPod") from other manufacturers. A year ago there were 3 billion phones in the world, now there are around 4.6, and it's largely thanks to Nokia. Phones, companies which enable this kind of uptake is what's defining 21st century landscape.

      • by jfanning (35979)

        Everyone in the US has such a total blind spot about Nokia it is truely astounding. I was listening to the FLOSS Weekly (ep 100) this morning and they were fauning over Android as being "the" opensource phone platform (it was a Google discussion though). Barely a mention about Android not actually being Linux at all and nothing about the only Real Linux distro on a phone (with any actual market share), ie Maemo.

        Comments from the US about the mobile market either make me laugh or cringe. Usually both in equa

        • Barely a mention about Android not actually being Linux at all

          I don't think I've seen this before. Could you explain exactly why Android isn't "at all" Linux?

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Nursie (632944)

            I was going to comment on that too. Android is a linux kernel with a custom userspace and display layer, AFAIK (and I've poked around the internals a bit).

      • Not just Nokia (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mdwh2 (535323)

        Hear hear. I was thinking - an article written as if Apple and Google are the only phone companies? And believes the myth that the Iphone is a "runaway hit"? (Actual market share figures disagree.)

        TFA only mentions Symbian briefly, dismissing them as you say, on the grounds that they are losing share. Well yes - at 40% market share, I'd expect over time that to lower as other companies enter. That doesn't mean Apple are remotely near overtaking them. And anyhow, even if they want to focus on the newcomers -

      • by dachshund (300733)

        It's not only about Maemo, it's about a phone manufacturer that has 40% of total market (of which smartphones are what, 15 - 20% now? Why do you talk only about them?).

        Because the expectation is that smartphones to become 90% of the market within a few years, given the rapid drop in hardware prices and the availability of fast 3G networks. The typical cellphone's lifespan is only a couple of years, and the expectation is that more and more consumers will replace with a $50-$99 smartphone rather than buyin

        • by sznupi (719324)

          And you know it will be 90% in "few years" how?

          First...give me the definition of smartphone. Tell me why iPhone is one while Sony Ericsson "feature phones" (web browsing, multitasking, multimedia features...) aren't. "Smartphone" is largely an arbitrary term, denoting what's "premium" right now, what you are supposed to crave, for which you are expected to shell out premium. Today smartphones are tomorrow feature phones. Heck, Nokia S40 platform has Webkit browser now... (and "multitasking" similar to this

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by WaywardGeek (1480513)

      Probably hate T-Mobile in a month.

      Verizon pissed me off by never letting me use my own camera for free. They had good coverage, though. With the Motorola Droid, I'd consider going back to them. AT&T pissed me off by screwing up account details with Apple, which eventually led to my iPhone being borked by Apple. T-Mobile has been good to me, with voice coverage at least as good as AT&T, and reasonable G3, and excellent EDGE coverage. When I wanted to go to Europe and use my G1 with another SIM c

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 20, 2009 @03:01AM (#30502554)
    I want an Android's brain in an iPhone's body.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by symbolset (646467)
      Modded funny, should be insightful.
    • There you have it. [nokia.com]

      Tip: Even with a a bit smaller screen, the resolution still is vastly bigger. Also you got root access right out of the box.

    • Except that the main thing the iPhone has going for it is the software. The hardware is no longer anything special.

      480 x 320 screen? The HTC Touch HD2 has 800 x 480. 256MB of RAM and a 600MHz CPU? Many of the latest smartphones come with 512MB of RAM and a 1GHz Snapdragon processor. 3 megapixel camera? There are phones out with 8 megapixel and even 12 megapixel cameras. Of course, the lens and sensor are what really matters - and there are much better ones around than the iPhone's. It doesn't even have the

  • All in the data (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MrDoh! (71235) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @03:08AM (#30502568) Homepage Journal

    Pretty soon, we'll be buying phones with data plans and the voice plan will be optional (if needed at all).
    All we need is Google to get their phones coming with a VOIP client as standard. Big unique selling point that no matter what network, or if you're not even on a network but just have wireless at home/work/in car/train/plane, you can make/receive calls.

    Using phone numbers and keeping a local phonebook of addresses makes as much sense as using IP numbers in a browser to get to a website. Google providing their DNS to allow new services to be added like this was another one of the steps needed to be done. Google Voice is a stopgap, their newly acquisitioned VOIP stuff is the next step.

    Shortly, it'll be standard to call someone using an email address and the data-networks will route as needed to their phone/home/business.

    • Re:All in the data (Score:5, Interesting)

      by kurt555gs (309278) <kurt555gs@ovi. c o m> on Sunday December 20, 2009 @03:22AM (#30502608) Homepage

      When I call up the phone app on the n900, the menu asks what typr of call I want to make:

      cell
      skype (dial out minutes required)
      google talk (to some ones computer)
      sip (I have a gizmo5 account liked to my google voice number)

      The N900 can also get incoming calls from any of those, and treats them the same as a cellular call.

      If I wanted to pay moe at Skype for a call in number, it would handle that to. All of these work over 3G or WLAN.

      It is seamless to the user.

      • by earlymon (1116185)

        Kurt - I checked out your website and I'm intrigued. Where did you buy yours? I'm noting the Amazon price (and user comments here) -

        http://www.amazon.com/Nokia-N900-Unlocked-Computer-Touchscreen/dp/B002OB49SW [amazon.com]

        What do you pay for an unlimited voice/unlimited roaming/unlimited data plan (normal business months for me can hit +4k minutes and 256 kB data)?

        Descriptions mention a front-facing webcam in addition to the backside camera - have you tried this for (free) skype video (maybe from a WiFi spot)?

        TIA -

        • by kurt555gs (309278)

          In the US, you need T-Mobile to use 3G. T-Mobile's plan for your own fone (aka N900) is unlimited voice/roaming/data/text's for $79.00 per month with no contract or termination fee.

          No video Skype yet. Its coming.

    • by ShakaUVM (157947)

      >>Pretty soon, we'll be buying phones with data plans and the voice plan will be optional (if needed at all).

      Yes, because data plans are so cheap from Verizon and their "competitors" in the market. :p

      I think last time I checked, Verizon made about a third of its money from overcharging for data access.

    • Good luck building an infrastructure that would support that.
      • by Duradin (1261418)

        And good luck financing that without voice tolls to subsidize the data plan.

        I really love it when VoIP users complain about our crappy infrastructure. Yes, let's do everything we can to not pay the tolls that would go into the pools that would pay for upgrades and then complain loudly about not getting upgrades.

        • when people believe what the telcos, who bought the data folks years ago, and which we now think of as the data guys.

          If the telos tell you they can't make money on a simple data network, you should be busy looking under the other shells.

          There is only one things you an be sure of with the telcos: They are not telling the truth. They never, ever do that.

          They cannot support their bloated payroll and archaic systems on just data? OK, I'd buy that. Then the business model of hiring as many people as possible

    • by jfanning (35979)

      Um, in Finland now I can get a 10EUR /month data plan (1 Mbit/s 3G) and the voice plan is optional. If I make voice calls I just pay per minute, same for text messages and MMS.

      In Finland the data plans are typically uncapped, but limited by speed. So they range from 1MBit/s up to 5 or so.

      Remember US != World.

    • by rwyoder (759998)

      Pretty soon, we'll be buying phones with data plans and the voice plan will be optional (if needed at all).

      I wasn't aware it was possible to get a data plan w/o a voice plan, until I learned that a guy on a forum I use, has it.
      He is deaf, so he has no use for the voice, but uses texting extensively with his wife.

  • by R3d M3rcury (871886) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @03:18AM (#30502596) Journal

    Here's one reason for the Nexus One that I haven't seen yet.

    Google wants it's employees to use Android and test new versions and be inspired to come up with interesting applications. The best way to do this is to give all your employees phones. If you're doing that, you might as well come up with a cool phone. It's not like Google doesn't have the money to do this.

    So, no, there's no ulterior motive about breaking the cellphone companies' grip on the market. There's no plan to sell it through T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, or even Mosaic telecom [mosaictelecom.com]. All there is a phone that Google can give to their employees for testing and being creative with. That's it.

    I know, I know. It's far more fun to believe that these corporations are doing all of these things as a battle that we can sit back and enjoy. But the reality is usually far more mundane.

    • by Romancer (19668)

      So you'd think that a business would research and develop a phone to give to it's employees to come up with great ways of using it, and then not sell that phone to comsumers, just the software?

      Really?

      We've seen what the other vensers think of an open system and room to play. They give it the "Misery" treatement. It's be better for Google to release the phone under an open source hardware license to get it out there for others to improve on, and use their software on! Best deal for them and for gaining marke

      • So you'd think that a business would research and develop a phone to give to it's employees to come up with great ways of using it, and then not sell that phone to comsumers, just the software?

        I'm still not convinced that Google did much research and development on this phone. My guess is that they went to HTC and said "if we give you some money, can you create a version of the Android phones that you've already made that also has features X and Y, and give us the first 20,000 that you manufacture?" I doubt it would cost HTC much to do a slightly-custom device (I heard someone else mention that that's actually how HTC started their business).

    • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @04:38AM (#30502806)

      Your theory does not jibe with Google's involvement with the FCC spectrum bidding a year or two ago.
      Remember how they lobbied to get extra conditions imposed as a contingency for licensing?
      They only got a watered down version of what they wanted, but it was still enough that the spectrum licensee had to accept 3rd party devices on their network. Devices just like an unlocked phone from some company other than the telco.

  • by The Wild Norseman (1404891) <tw@norseman.gmail@com> on Sunday December 20, 2009 @03:22AM (#30502606)

    So for the past five years or more, they've been doing their best not to get dragged into a game of beggar-my-neighbor

    Because the game of "bugger-my-customer" is so much more fun...

  • what if ? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by kenshin33 (1694322)
    Scary or neat?? that is the question. here's a thought, what if they (cel/tel cos) are already packet switching and making people pay for circuit switching?
    • are already packet switching and making people pay for circuit switching

      Which they have been doing for more than 10 years.

      What if customers were to complain about being raped?
      They have been doing for 100 years.
      Who own your congress-critter?

  • As WiFi migrates from Laptops to Desktops 3G chipsets will start to be standard items in Netbooks, then Laptops. This will help push data only plans down in price. And then 3G will migrate everywhere. Your car, your GPS (handheld, bike, car), cameras, etc etc.

    Five years from now your 3G provider bill will have a list of your many 3G enabled devices. Perhaps one or two might have traditional voice plans. All will have data plans.

    Carriers that allow you to aggregate devices and total transfer at reasonable pr

    • Perhaps one or two might have traditional voice plans. All will have data plans.

      With ubiquitous 3G, why would we need the farce of separate plans? It's all bits going over a network... data.

  • AT&T and Verizon become the main bandwidth providers. T-Mobile and Sprint will cease exist on their own. Google provides services as Google does Anything Google can monetize via ads is something Google goes after. This doesn't make Google a direct competitor to Apple or any other handset maker as long as the handset maker adopts Android or at least Google services. The iPhone has Google Maps, YouTube and Google Search by default. Google can provide other apps on this platform and with Admob, provi
  • by jerryasher (151512) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @04:02AM (#30502714)

    Is there something I don't understand? I don't think unlocking a US cellphone has any additional value than an unlocked US cellphone. The phone's most value is on its original network and it's almost worthless on any other network.

    All GSM is not equal. Unlock a T-Mobile cellphone and move it to AT&T and you get a degraded EDGE speed. And I assume that's true in reverse. An unlocked AT&T cellphone presumably has poor speed on T-Mobiles network.

    All CDMA is not equal. A Verizon phone cannot necessarily be switched to Sprint -- my experience is that Sprint has to support that phone explicitly in its own network, including a possible new firmware load. And presumably vice versa.

    And of course a GSM phone cannot be activated on a CDMA network or vice-versa.

    So even if you can unlock your phone, there doesn't seem to be ANY interoperability with respect to carriers. Your unlocked phone has the most value on the network it came from, and almost no value on any other network.

    So what's the point of unlocking it?

    Please feel free to correct me and point out all the things I don't understand about cellphones. Cause I don't get it, and I assume it's due to my ignorance.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Karganeth (1017580)

      Is there something I don't understand? I don't think unlocking a US cellphone has any additional value than an unlocked US cellphone. The phone's most value is on its original network and it's almost worthless on any other network.

      Why would you think that? How is a phone worthless on another network? Do you even understand what unlocking is?

      Here in the UK, lots of little shops offer to unlock your phone. And people pay for it, because its worth moneys to have an unlocked phone.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Guy Harris (3803)

        Why would you think that? How is a phone worthless on another network? Do you even understand what unlocking is?

        Do you understand what the tower of Babel of different mobile phone protocols the North American market is? If not, please reread the posting to which you replied, as he mentioned those issues (e.g., "And of course a GSM phone cannot be activated on a CDMA network or vice-versa.")

        Here in the UK, lots of little shops offer to unlock your phone. And people pay for it, because its worth moneys to have an unlocked phone.

        Here in the US, you can unlock a phone you got for, for example, the AT&T mobile phone network, and you will not be able to use it on, for example, the Verizon Wireless mobile phone network, for purely technical reasons - AT

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by JWSmythe (446288)

      Unlocking works if your phone is capable of working on other networks. That's why the manufacturers advertise how many networks they work on.

      I had Nextel back in the day, before Sprint bought them and started raping their customers with extra fees. (I was getting $300 for various things, even though there was no service at my house, and the phone sat on my desk with a dead battery). A friend of mine bought two unlocked Boost Mobile phones, because she thought they looked nice

      • by jfanning (35979) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @07:18AM (#30503154) Homepage

        Your GSM phone was probably locked to the original provider. That is why it is important to buy an _unlocked_ phone.

        All operators in Europe are basically on the same frequencies. I can go to any country in Europe and my phone "just works". If I don't want to pay roaming fees then I can stick in a local SIM and it "just works".

        The problem in the US is that your stupid providers choose/got assigned different bands to operate on. So phones physically have to be capable of working on those frequency bands. In most cases Nokia will make them work on one or the other (so AT&T or TMobile), but not both.

        If you want to find what frequencies each network supports you can check them all out at GSM World. They also cover UMTS 3G networks. http://gsmworld.com/roaming/gsminfo/index.shtml [gsmworld.com]

        • by JWSmythe (446288)

          If I remember right (which it's been quite a few years), they were different frequencies, so we were just out of luck.

          As contrary as I may have sounded, I am all for the portability of cell phones. I always considered it asinine that I had to make an investment on a cell phone, just to be locked into that company for as long as they'd like.

          Now, I'm not quite in the same position. I bought a cheap prepay phone. Their plan is unlimited everything, so I can chatt

    • by Dravik (699631)
      Verizon is CDMA, but sprint is a GSM/iDEN hybrid. The phones don't cross because they are different formats. As for T-moblie/ATT, they are both GSM. If your phone is capable of the full GSM spectrum then you shouldn't have any trouble moving back and forth. The cheap pay-as-you-go phones are intentionally designed to only be capable of the spectrum owned by the carrier selling them. That's why they are so cheap.
    • You're not really missing anything. The situation in the US screws over customers in multiple ways, and an unlocked one phone only solves one of those problems. For example, I only have a choice of one network to use, so I'm locked to it even with an unlocked phone.

    • by xenocide2 (231786)

      Firstly, unlocked phones running on AT&T at EDGE is better that nothing. It's one of the reasons I favor GSM; even though there's only a few carriers/MVNOs, there's at least some alternatives. R-UIM theoretically could do the same thing, but I gather US CDMA carriers don't want it. No matter how you look at it though, there's a slightly broader market for used unlocked phones.

      Secondly, the take a look at T-Mobile's Even More+ and Even More plans. One is month-to-month, the other comes with a phone and a

  • by linuxtelephony (141049) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @04:50AM (#30502840) Homepage
    You know, if I were the paranoid type, I might be prone to think there were some high level shenanigans going on.

    Remember the Apple patent enforcing ad viewing [slashdot.org] or the Apple patent on OS advertising [slashdot.org]?

    Google is known for its advertising business, and has been putting ads everywhere. Eric Schmidt was on Apple's board from 2006 to 2009, when he resigned (or was forced out?) due to Google's entering "more of Apple's core business" with Chrome and Android. The new, unlocked, Google phone has plenty of speculation surrounding it, but one of the more interesting bits was that it could show up in two forms: (1) expensive, not subsidized, and (2) cheap, with advertising subsidizing it somehow, perhaps forced ad viewing or something?

    Given Schmidt's time on the board, I wonder if he deliberately or inadvertently revealed any of these plans, or if Apple found itself aware of these plans through some other means. Regardless, if Apple has a patent on OS-level ad displays and/or forced ad viewing on a device, it would seem that they would be in a position to try and extract money from Google if they go forward with an ad-subsidized phone.

    So now this begs the questions: Was Apple's patents on these concepts the result of information about Google's upcoming plans (either acquired legitimately or otherwise), or were they plans they had for a device of their own? Tough to say.

    Personally I'm all for the carriers to be reduced to a conduit provider only. It's about time too. If they all had to compete as nearly identical providers of bandwidth instead of a myriad of services, then perhaps we'd see some improvements in the network quality. In fact, they'd have a lot more network capacity if they'd deliver one type of service instead of fragmenting it between different technologies. A friend and I often lament the poor audio quality people have come to expect from wrieless phones now that we are 100% digital. Sure there's no more "static" - but audio quality has suffered to get there.

    I'm hopeful LTE will improve things - though I'm not holding my breath for it. It's going to be an expensive network upgrade that won't happen overnight. Sprint is banking on wimax and outsourcing their network, Verizon is claiming latter half 2010 for LTE. And along the way comes Google's Android and the exclusivity of the iPhone on AT&T nearing expiration (was it renewed? last I read it was all talk but I didn't see anything come from it), perhaps we'll finally have some heavy hitters that can break the carrier strangleholds. Should be interesting if they can.
  • by pecosdave (536896) * on Sunday December 20, 2009 @05:35AM (#30502926) Homepage Journal

    Google really needs to rip off Apt and Synaptics and make a version for their phones. All the way. Not only do they need to make multiple version specific repositories (and tested, don't let Debian and its ability to break stable regularly set to much of an example). The ability of users to add custom repositories for our apps that Google wont stamp with approval would be nice as well. We really need the carriers and their inability to do anything but lump surcharges on top of crap out of the way.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Eunuchswear (210685)

      Google really needs to rip off Apt and Synaptics and make a version for their phones.

      What, you mean like Nokia already does?

      • by pecosdave (536896) *

        As a non-Nokia user, that's news to me. I like the idea though.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by jilles (20976)

          Well, Maemo is essentially a Debian derivative with the fully functional debian package management tools installed and configured to be used with Nokia software repositories for over the air apt-get updates & upgrades (i.e. no need to flash the device with new firmware, you'll get updates as they are made available). You can install a package from the officially supported (i.e. no need for hacks to accomplish this) list of packages to get a root shell after which you can modify sources.list to e.g. add

          • by pecosdave (536896) *

            Nifty

            I have heard a minimum amount about this, mostly because I was excited when the work on a Qt version of Firefox was started. Unfortunately another route was taken.

            --still want QT Firefox.

  • The really annoying part is trying to get a phone that actually is any good. Because of spotty coverage, different phones on each carrier, etc. it is remarkably difficult to figure out which phone actually works the best just for "making calls" by any absolute measurement, which gives makers a lot more leeway on quality (since they don't really have to compete against any standard).

  • by blamanj (253811) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @01:08PM (#30504842)

    I don't think the competition between Google and Apple is the issue here, but the point about telcos as commodities seems spot on. Apple could sell unlocked phones just as easily as Google, there have been rumors about a Verizon iPhone for months. Also, having the telcos as commodities doesn't hurt Apple's ability to be an "experience company." Apple's machines plug into the same internet, the same power grid, the same USB connectors, etc. as all the rest. The way Apple controls the experience is buy selling both the hardware and the software together.

  • That's the only way to optimize the cellular networks. Everyone adopts a standard, with a standard stack, so that everyone uses each other's towers. Really, who cares if AT&T or Verizon has the better network? Let them all adopt the same 5G, and if they still can't fully develop the cell network, then the government goes into the business of rural cellphonication. You pay for your own cellphone/computer.

    If we had developed railroads at different gauges, with no sharing of right of way, we'd be living in

  • If Google wants to reduce the wireless carriers to dumb pipes, then it needs a network of its own. Otherwise, the carriers will simply block VoIP over their networks or, simpler yet, refuse to sell data service without a voice plan. However, if there's a competitor to the existing carriers, then customers will presumably flock to it, forcing the established players to change the way they sell service.

    I realize that building a nationwide network will cost a small fortune and take time, but that's what it's

  • So who's a threat to whom if they have got a choice of paying Apple or reading Google's ads?

    Apple want to maintain the high quality Apple-centric user experience and sell stuff to their users through the walled garden of the App Store and the iTunes music/video store. Apple are an implicit threat to Google because Google can't slap their ads all over those media.

    For this to be a threat to Google, Apple would have to have exclusive content way superior to anything Google could ever get its hands on.

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