Friday, August 01, 2008

Why do American cell phones (still) suck so bad?

It's been about two years since I upgraded to my Samsung SGH-A707. It's been a decent phone, but it's pretty beat up now - cracked in one place, chipped in another. And like every phone I've ever had, for some reason it's getting slower as it gets older. And it turns itself off for no reason every once in a while.

I'm eligible for an upgrade from AT&T, and I need to keep AT&T so I have a SIM card that I can use in Japan. (I could use T-Mobile if I wanted to, but no other carrier.) I've been looking at their phone lineup, and I'm pretty shocked to see that most of their phones are not even as good as my SGH-A707 - and it's been two years! The entire lineup is frankly a large pile of steaming garbage. Most of their decent phones these days are "smartphones", which are not my cup of tea - they're big and ugly and don't do things that I want while doing a lot of other things I don't need.

The top-of-the-line AT&T flip phones right now seem to be the Nokia N75, the Sony Ericsson Z750a and the Samsung SLM (apparently Samsung has taken a page out of Motorola's playbook with their vowel-less word naming schemes).

All of these offer basically the exact same features and specifications of my SGH-A707, two years on. That's the best they can do?!

Meanwhile, in Japan you can get a phone like the FOMA F906i - and this is not unique:

Some of the spec highlights:

* 864x480 resolution main screen (96x30 secondary screen) - talk about pixel density!

* 640x480 30fps mpeg-4 video recording

* 3.2 megapixel still camera

* up to 8GB memory using SD memory slot

* built-in GPS

* built-in One-Seg TV tuner (in other words, a real TV tuner)

* built-in music capabilities

* download music and video subscriptions (over the air, automatically, at night)

* a couple of features that allow you to pay for stuff with your phone (it acts like a credit card)

* motion sensitivity (for games)

And of course it runs on DoCoMo's FOMA system, which is rock-solid and fast - I've used it, it's like talking on a land line. No digital delay, no static, no dropouts, even when in motion.

This phone... the N905i. It's actually got a 5.2 megapixel camera. There's at least one model that has an 8mp camera but I can't find it right now. The point is, these are some awesome phones. And they look motherfuggin' cool too.

DoCoMo doesn't even sell phones as crappy as the ones we have here anymore. Other companies there do - you can buy one from KDDI. Know what they call them? "Simple Phones". That's probably what they think of the people that buy them too. They offer three - here's one of them:

These are actually marketed to the elderly, or anyone else who just can't handle all the cool features and top-end specs on the better phones.

Yes, yes, I know about the iPhone. Ok, three things:

a) the iPhone is still just not very good. Yes, it's got 3G now, yes it has GPS. That's nice. But I want a higher-res screen, I want a TV and an FM tuner, I want a better camera (for both stills and video), I want all these other features that phones elsewhere have and we don't. Fuck, man, I want my phone to make me toast in the morning. The iPhone is on sale in Japan now and except for the Apple diehards (they exist there too), it is considered kind of a low-end phone.

b) to use the iPhone here, you have to pay for data services that I won't use.

c) I want freakin' buttons. Is that so much to ask? Also, the reason why clamshells remain popular is that they protect the main screen. Like I said, the external case of my current phone is cracked - better that than the screen. The one "candy bar" style phone I've owned did end up with a cracked screen - right down the middle.

I actually think the iPhone has done some major damage to the US cell phone market, in that it's lowered expectations for what we consider a "good phone" to be, and now everybody's trying to copy what is in reality a niche design. (Even at 10 million sold, Apple's share of the market is a drop in the bucket of the 2 billion cell phones currently in use worldwide.)

What other reasons are there for this sea of suckage? I've got a couple theories:

1. Subsidies. Sounds counter-intuitive, but people here have gotten used to paying nothing for a phone, so manufacturers need to produce phones that carriers are willing to give away. In Japan, you buy a phone like any other piece of electronics. Manufacturers are competing directly for consumer dollars, and one way of differentiating is on features and specs.

(The iPhone *almost* made one positive contribution to the cell phone landscape here in that it was originally not subsidized... but that's now out the window.)

2. Contracts. Locking people in to 2 years with a particular phone means they can't upgrade if something new comes out that they want. That has the effect of elongating the natural development cycle. Manufacturers usually wait at least 2 years before replacing their current lineup with anything truly new.

We might pay more initially but we'd have both better service and better phones if all phones were unlocked and we just bought them like anything else. We'd also probably pay less for service over the life of owning the phone if we were free to simply switch plans and carriers at any time, so the total cost would be lower. As it is, truly good phones aren't even available here at any price. It's a sad state of affairs.

I dunno what I'm gonna do for my new phone. Move to Japan, I guess.


  1. you;ve read my mind!!! that or we live parallel lives. I ingeniusly spilled my cup of noodles on my black berry the other day and recently killed my digital camera, which prompted me on a sort of crazy scavenger hunt for a brand new, better than an ipod, phone/camera all in one. and this is what i found, it might not have buttons, but the "buttons" respond when u press them. =)

    LG Viewty;

    5.0 megapixel camera with a xenon flash.
    and it takes calls.

    awesome no?

  2. It does look pretty cool, yeah. Definitely the camera part is pretty advanced. BUT! I just will never buy a touch-screen phone. I don't want a touch screen. What this thing needs is to be a half-inch thinner, have double the screen resolution and then have a screen protecting flip cover that's got some buttons on it. Then it'd be a really nice phone.

    I'm sure I sound unreasonable with my demands, but my perfect phone does exist! Just not here. It's not like I'm wishing for some fairy tale phone that couldn't possibly be real. I just want an N905i, is that too much to ask??

    I'm hoping this touch screen madness blows over at some point.

  3. demands demands! lucky you we live in a capitalist society (mostly) based on consumer demands.

    there is something like that! but not thinner. im not sure. Lookup the LG Shine & LG EnV.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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