There’s been a whole world of commotion in the smartphone market these days. Even teen-aimed mobile devices like LG’s enV3 (which the commercial claims is “app friendly,” somehow) are looking more and more like smartphones – you can download applications that make it easier to stay in touch with your friends, surf the Web, get your e-mail, and all in all distract you more while you drive. (texting while driving is a whole other column)
But no one’s scrambling for the enV3, no one’s scrambling for the Samsung Trance. No one’s lining up to get the Blackberry Storm – even though it’s one of these new breed of smartphones. What are people lining up for? The iPhone in just about every iteration it’s been released, and surprising new devices like the Palm Pre and the G1. The G1, the Pre, and the iPhone prove a remarkable point: the smartphone isn’t the realm of the businessperson anymore, and even professionals want more from a smartphone than just the ability to get their corporate e-mail on the go.
The United States, in all target markets, is learning a lesson that people in other markets have either known or also been learning for years: we need better smartphones. The iPhone, the Palm Pre, and the G1 are proof of this – people want phones that bring true Web browsing to their mobile fingertips, and not the type of terrifyingly ugly Web experience that typically comes on devices like your standard clamshell mobile phone.
But it goes beyond this – people don’t just want them, they’re willing to jump ship from their current carriers, even if they have no complaints, and pay large amounts of money for expensive data plans in order to get them. They’re also willing to line up in front of mobile phone stores around the country to get them on the first possible day they can get them.
The masses are hungry, the manufacturers are willing to deliver if there’s a market, and sadly – just like any other monolithic industry with little real competition and a focus on the status quo instead of continual improvement, US carriers have absolutely no intention of making changes to suit this new market.
AT&T continues to bend over their iPhone customers with expensive data plans that, for example, are unlimited…as long as you don’t send any text messages, and T-Mobile absolutely refuses to invest in its network. Verizon is to focused on marketing and playing up their network superiority that they’re willing to release terrible phones hand over fist just to keep bringing in the cash. Instead, their best offering is the Blackberry Storm, a phone with so much potential and so little delivery – a device that RIM released updates for but Verizon blocked for ridiculous and unknown reasons. Instead, Verizon is so focused on the hip, texting, Facebook-updating teen crowd that even their best phones still represent a terrible Web browsing experience, expensive applications and data plans, and neutered features that force you to pay for everything from wallpaper images to ringtones. (Why Verizon still turns off bluetooth data transfer on its phones is beyond me.)
So what’s the result? People line up outside of AT&T stores and Apple stores on the eve of iPhone releases, even if it’s just the annual revision (I completely expect lines for the release of the iPhone 3GS). Palm manages to sell dozens of thousands of Pre devices on the first day of their release even though all they have in the way of apps is a handful of utilities and a whole lot of promise, and a partnership between T-Mobile and Google has turned out the G1, a device that’s incredibly popular even though Android is suffering to find more platforms to get to market with.
The smaller carriers have the agility to try things like new, smarter mobile devices, even if it means their lives are tied to them, (where would AT&T and T-Mobile be right now without the iPhone and the G1 respectively?) and they’re realizing their risks are paying off. Now the thing they need to realize is that the market needs more of those types of devices so they spread the risk across multiple platforms, instead of begging manufacturers for 5-7 year exclusivity contracts. The only carrier that really hasn’t woken up to this is naturally the largest; Verizon – the sleeping giant that could very well change the entire US market by itself.
The US smartphone market is completely changing, the real question will be whether or not the carriers will change along with it or continue to stand its way in order to maintain control over their customers.