A 3rd Horse? Finally?

January 12, 2012

Nokia announced the pending arrival of the Lumia N900 with 4G LTE for AT&T at CES this week and based on most of the internet response I’ve seen, it would seem Windows Phone might finally gain some traction in 2012.  However, yesterday Sprint’s Vice President of Product Realization David Owens told pcmag:

“We have a Windows device in our lineup, but honestly, it hasn’t done well enough for us to jump     back into the fire. We told Microsoft: You guys have to go build the enthusiasm for the product. We’ll train our reps on why it’s great…[but] the number-one reason the product was returned was the user experience,” 

WTF?  That’s the key thing everyone says Windows Phone has going for it?  Now because the device he’s referencing, the HTC Arrive, is a landscape slide out qwerty device and WIndows Phone doesn’t support landscape usage across the OS, I can imagine they have had some confused consumers return the device.  I always wondered why the hell they picked that form factor for their first WP7 device anyway.

Regardless, when a major carrier says they’re not interested in trying to sell a phone on your platform until they’re convinced it’s worth the effort, your not just a long shot, you’re not even in the race.

A 3 Horse Race? Really?

March 28, 2011

Microsoft is absolutely scrambling folks. Make no mistake about it. Mobile computing is clearly the future and Microsoft has entered the “Post PC” era with extreme tardiness and desperation (thus the deal with Nokia). I have used a few different WP7 devices since their launches in early November (in the US, late Oct in Europe) and the user experience is definitely unique and enjoyable if not complete. I started with the Samsung Focus on AT&T, moved to the Dell Venue Pro on T-Mobile, and just packaged up a T-Mobile HTC HD7 I sold for less than half its original value (at 5 months old).

I was going to wait for the so called “NoDo” update from Microsoft which is to bring copy and paste, as well as performance improvements, but I got tired of waiting. It was originally supposed to be delivered in January. Then Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer assured the crowd listening to his keynote address at Mobile World Congress, “early March” would finally see the arrival of “NoDo” (a Microsoft staffer apparently forgot to bring donuts to the meeting in which they were to decide the name of software update – no seriously). It is now late March and though Microsoft posted an update by carrier on when to expect NoDo, no one knows exactly when the carriers will release it.

Ah the carriers….the benevolent, always deserve the benefit of the doubt, power sharing carriers! Originally Microsoft promised an Appleesque model of software update delivery – unencumbered by carrier approval. One of my favorite bloggers James Kendrick has opined on this Windows Phone 7 update situation and puts the blame squarely on Microsoft:

Microsoft has a real PR problem over the nightmare that is Windows Phone 7 updates, but has no one to blame but itself….. Microsoft screwed the pooch if they have allowed the carrier enough leeway in the update process to adversely affect WP7 customers.”

Isn’t it likely Microsoft had little choice but to give in on this? I find it easy to imagine AT&T in return for being the highest profile launch partner for WP7 negotiated the right to test (and deny) any WP7 update. I also believe Microsoft has utterly failed at delivering an update AT&T or any other carrier could have confidence in rolling out yet….The pre-NoDo test update they rolled out apparently caused issues for Samsung Focus owners, and two European carriers claimed recently they had approved the update and were waiting on Microsoft?

Regardless, Microsoft is clearly losing ground literally by the day in what Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop termed a “3 horse race” between Microsoft/Nokia, Apple, and Google. There is hope in that also demoed during the aforementioned MWC keynote was the next update code named “Mango” which will bring multitasking, Twitter integration, and more.

But, it was generally projected to arrive by late 2011: which will likely be one year too late.

Jkontherun, among others has blogged about his horrible AT&T 3G experience in Las Vegas during CES. James said:

“I found the iPhone virtually useless for calls and data coverage from day one. AT&T can say what they want about its data coverage, I am continually finding it to be poor during my road trips, and this one was as bad as ever.”

He went on to say:

“There is absolutely no question in my mind that the AT&T network cannot handle saturation during an event like the CES. The Sprint network rarely faltered during the week. I don’t know why, given its horrible reputation, AT&T wouldn’t beef up coverage for an event like this. Let’s face it, if they can’t provide service to a gathering of technology journalists who cover such things, they have a real problem.”

I vociferously seconded that emotion in the post comments with this diatribe:

“If AT&T can’t or won’t seemingly do anything to get out in front of the CES network saturation that was surely expected, then are they being lead competently? Instead of absolutely blanketing downtown LV with temporary cells to avoid further PR embarrassment by literally ALL the tech opinion makers in town, or better yet planning to spend the capital necessary to permanently blanket downtown LV with 7.2 mpbs coverage and maybe making that the center of their CES presentation with an emphasis on “we hear you and this is one example of how we’re taking aggressive action to meet your data demands”, they trumpet some nonsense about how developers are going to come build crapware for their feature phones, now on a unified BREW mobile platform – as opposed to developing for the iPhone that is surely now going to another network……Hard to imagine that Verizon could have regained the upper hand with Apple, but AT&T is now hurting Apple enough that big V’s execs must be licking their chops at the negotiating table.”

In fact to take the competency question a little further, have they forgotten to roll out the 3G Microcell? I’ve had a retail unit since July and it works brilliantly! As far as I know, you can only buy one here in Atlanta and in some North Carolina markets. At a minimum they could have finally done a full scale national launch of this device at CES and shocked the world by announcing they would charge a nominal token amount for it, like 9.99, so as to guarantee it getting multiple mentions in blogosphere coverage of CES?!

The more I think about it the more convinced I become that Apple, whether they announce a tablet device later this month or not, most definitely will be announcing a new iPhone, on a new network.

Well it actually has 3G bands that are compatible with most of the rest of the world too, but my immediate question upon seeing confirmation today that Google’s new “superphone” would only be capable of 3G data speeds on T-Mobile in the U.S., was why not a version for AT&T too? (as was rumored, especially given the surprise that Verizon will get it’s own version) 

And for that matter why weren’t 3G bands 850/1900 as opposed to 1700 (or AWS which is actually 1700 down and 2100 up) chosen for inclusion in the first place? T-Mobile has approximately 34 million subscribers (and just launched AWS utilizing Canadian carrier WIND can’t have more than a million just yet?).  Meanwhile, Canadian carriers Telus, Bell, Fido, and Rogers along with AT&T represent over 100 million potential subscribers using 850/1900?  Was AT&T unwilling to play ball with Google selling the device directly, and offering a subsidized price for 2 year contract commitments as T-Mobile is doing?  If so, then why should Google care?  There are PLENTY of SIM switching power users on AT&T (not to mention our Canadian cell phone junkie cousins?).

Of course the original scuttlebutt was Google was going to sell a device with both AT&T and T-Mobile 3G capable radios.  Never mind Motorola is the first known manufacturer to have accomplished this feat and they only just announced having done so – with a “radio module”, not a phone.  And that once again begged a question I’ve been asking myself for a while:

What is so damn difficult about including multiple 3G radios in a smartphone?  We’ve had quadband EDGE capable phones around for years, so what is the difference between pairing those radios and and pairing 3G capable radios?  The iPhone has triband HSDPA (850/1900/2100). The Nexus One has triband HSDPA (900/1700/2100).  So why don’t we already have at least quadband HSDPA in a device, like 850/1700/1900/2100? 

Tired of not hearing any definitive answers from the geeks I follow on the interwebs, I started hunting like a madman this afternoon.  I eventually Googled my way to the GSMA’s

official site specifically looking for news on potential growth in usage of AWS spectrum in places outside of North America. (so I could maybe understand why both Google and Nokia have chosen to release such high profile 3G data driven devices with just AWS support)  Sure enough I found a May 2009 report prepared for the GSMA by a research outfit called Global View Partners entitled “Momentum Building in the AWS Band”.  LOTS of good and interesting info is in the report about why AWS is such an important piece of the global spectrum allocation challenges many countries face, but by the time I reached page 21 and read the paragraph included below, I knew I had finally found an answer to the  question angrily posed from the end of the previous paragraph:

Device caveat and roaming – devices currently support only two simultaneous “high” bands. At present, devices can handle a maximum of two simultaneous high bands only (e.g., 1900 MHz and 2100 MHz), and third-generation mobile devices typically support three frequency bands total. The operator can specify two low (e.g., 800 MHz/900 MHz) and one high (e.g., 1900 MHz), or the opposite (one low, two high).”

At least Motorola has now apparently cleared this engineering hurdle, and unlocked quintuple banded 3G devices will soon be a reality……just not soon enough for me!

image 

It seems us Apple fanatics all agree on 2 things of late: thing the first – Apple needs to partner with Verizon and offer the iPhone on their supposedly best in class network; thing the second – Apple seems poised to finally offer a tablet computer.

On the latter issue, Jon Gruber has written the most cogent conjecture I’ve yet read about what the tablet might actually be, but he doesn’t speculate as to which wireless radios “The Tablet” might include.  So, I’ll jump into that vacuum and riff accordingly.

Given that it appears Verizon and Apple are on the outs: Verizon’s “there’s a map for that” and Droid versus iPhone ad campaigns appear to be just as directed at Apple as they are AT&T.  And when addressing the possibility of an iPhone on Verizon, their CEO said: “This is a decision that is exclusively in Apple’s court”.  Consequently, one can’t not speculate that someone walked away from the table, and it doesn’t sound like it was Apple?  Steve Jobs can’t be pleased with Verizon’s marketing angle and if AT&T’s network versus Verizon’s, or at least the perception of their network (which is all that matters as Apple well knows) is eating away his leverage with big V, what can he do?

Remember that Sprint’s CEO during an interview with Charlie Rose was I thought effusive in his praise for the iPhone – WHILE he was being asked about how their best competitive device the Palm Pre had not really challenged it as Sprint must have hoped: “But you’ve got to almost put the iPhone, to be fair, in a separate category”. 

If Apple partnered with Sprint on the iPhone (or “The Tablet”, and I’ll get to that later), it would obviously finally stop the subscriber bleeding for Sprint, so they would likely be amenable to most any terms Apple required.  Additionally, it would obviously require Apple to create an EVDO capable iPhone (and if I hear another person argue how that doesn’t make sense for Apple to manufacture, then could they please explain to me why it makes and has made so much sense for HTC, Samsung, Motorola, Palm, etc. to do so?). 

So, an iPhone EVDO would be in mass production on a network other than Verizon’s, and an iPhone would be available in the US on a network other than AT&T’s.  I think Sprint would stand to make some serious money, and regain some precious market momentum, and suddenly whatever leverage Apple may have lost to Verizon, such that Verizon wasn’t willing to bend to their demands, would be thereby eradicated.

Now would Sprint apparently be making a big deal of a WIMAX capable windows mobile device at CES next week and then joining Apple on stage January 26th to announce the next iPhone?  I doubt it, unless said iPhone has not only EVDO, but also WIMAX?  And other than a Fox News report that the not officially confirmed Apple event is in fact confirmed, and “will focus on the mobility space”, most have assumed it would be only about “The Tablet”. 

We all know Apple likes to tell stories with their presentations, and what if the story started with how their exclusivity agreement with AT&T has ended (wild standing ovation will almost certainly ensue).  Steve will try to tamp down the response and give cursory defense to AT&T, and possibly even state what most people think: the iPhone is too big for any one network in one country to handle.  Then he’ll launch into why they’ve chosen to partner with Sprint (to initial boos probably), and how great their network supposedly is (I don’t have fond memories of it myself), blah, blah, blah, maybe even joined by Dan Hesse (Sprint’s impressive CEO) on stage briefly where they then both pull the thinner, sleeker 4th iPhone model out of their pockets (Hesse might even wear jeans too). 

A general spec run down will follow to explain how this iPhone EVDO out does even the 3GS, and then Steve will drop the WIMAX bomb (again to a wild standing O), call it the iPhone 4G, and discuss the device cost, plans, availability (that Friday Jan. 29), etc.  And then to continue weaving the WIMAX thread through the story he will breathlessly proclaim the mother of all “but there’s one more thing”s:  “The Tablet”

“The Tablet” will have wifi, bluetooth, EVDO, and of course WIMAX, and assuming Gruber’s ideas are correct, it will change everything we thought we knew about personal computing.  WIMAX will forever be defined by it’s inclusion in this device and the 4th generation iPhone, and my dream of global 4G network standards fragmentation will begin to be realized.  It’s entirely possible that video conferencing on “The Tablet” will be one of the killer features Apple shows off in the remainder of their presentation and of course news coverage will focus on this and essentially involuntarily communicate that Apple has finally “invented” useful video conferencing. 

When it’s all over, AT&T’s execs will almost certainly feel conflicted: nauseated they weren’t good enough to remain Apple’s exclusive partner through such a huge development; joyous the focus and pressure on their network might finally subside.

Sprint’s execs will obviously already be praying they don’t screw this once in a decade opportunity up (they probably will). 

Verizon’s execs?  If they’re smart, they’ll be calling Steve Jobs and begging him for a 3rd chance. (they probably won’t)

Kevin Tofel of jkontherun has penned a masterpiece post on his frustration with the US cellular landscape.  In summary, he wants to have a data only line and US carriers make that incredibly difficult to do on the up and up.  There is certainly some trickeration one can employ (see the comments on his post), but his point is this shouldn’t be necessary.

We should at minimum be able to bring our own hardware to a carrier and get a data only plan, paying for voice by the minute as needed (one guy in the comments boasted that he used just 13 minutes last month and that was a heavy month for him).  My dream of course is something more like the European model where every carrier uses the same standard (GSM) and 3G frequency (2100 Mhz) and if you’re willing to pony up for an unlocked phone, you can purchase any pay as you go SIM card you please, and bounce from carrier to carrier depending on where you’re at or what the best deal du jour happens to be. 

Alas, the muddled standards on which the North American cellular industry was built make this a pipe dream for now, and the foreseeable future, except for one thing I had only marginally considered – what if worldwide cellular industry disagreement over what the voice standard for LTE should be, leads to VOIP becoming the de-facto standard.  In fact, does Verizon truly realize their soon to be launched LTE network could hasten this, especially given how invested in Google’s Android operating system they’ve become? 

If Google rolls VOIP capability into Google Voice, as some have predicted they will, and this is part of the “real” Android operating system, and the tech media covers this like I think they will, such that it eventually bleeds into the mainstream media……..and one thing leads to another and Apple does some sort of iChatesque VOIP solution on the next iPhone (or even better the mythical Apple tablet), then does VOIP become a true voice calling alternative as soon as the cellular data networks are ready? (everyone is looking at you unfairly or not AT&T)

Verizon has stated it plans to implement LTE in up to 30 US markets in 2010 (as close to all at once as possible).  But, CDMA would almost certainly be required for voice calls on any Verizon LTE capable handset in the next year or two at least, and that makes me wonder if popular tech savvy and understanding of how to best leverage broadband everywhere to our advantage might outpace the technical transition to whatever the LTE voice standard(s) become?  If my crazy dreams in the previous paragraph come to fruition…..maybe?

This is a pivotal era in which we live, and we desperately need a savvy, forward thinking, aggressive leader who has the power to help consumers even the playing field among the cell carriers – in a permanent way.  And he might find himself in the middle of a maelstrom of technical, political, and cultural variables that if mixed and matched at just the right moments……..walls do come down sometimes you know!?  

I'm so ridiculously torn between these two fundamentally different devices, I've actually seriously considered using their television commercials as a tie breaker. The recent HTC commercials I've seen with the tag line: “You don't need to get a phone, you need a phone that gets you, and, you, and you”, where in cadence to the extra “and you”s you see an animated swiping of the word “You” across an HTC Hero's (for sprint) screen – very classy and compelling in my opinion. RIM on the other hand has literally permeated my television viewing experience this fall with their random characters striving for personal excellence feel good “All you need is love” campaign. If these adds did't end with Blackberry branding I would swear they were supposed to have been McDonalds commercials? So annoying in general (terribly whiny cover effort of Beatles classic)and annoying specifically in their disconnectness to what Blackberry's are about, I soon became incapable of restraining my silent visceral disdain when I saw one of these commercials. Is this seriously the best ad campaign RIM could come up with?

So I guess it's obvious which phone wins the tiebreaker, except for one thing: I would not have even considered typing this post from the Hero, and I just finished it from the Bold 9700…….