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Gauging the battle between carriers and handset makers

One of the most encouraging things about the original iPhone was that it was an Apple product, not an AT&T product. Apple maintained control over just about every aspect of the user experience, and customers relied on AT&T only for connectivity. This was great news for end users, because mobile carriers tend to do an awful job in terms of user experience. One of the reasons the iPhone was so starkly different from everything else on the market at the time was that it was so obviously free of the horrible sorts of interfaces that carriers always foist upon their customers.

I was among the many optimistic people who believed that the iPhone was the harbinger of things to come, and that soon there would be a plethora of handsets from a variety of manufacturers that, like the iPhone, reflected the design choices of the handset maker rather than the carrier. Aside from the discontinued Nexus One (which no carriers subsidized) and more recently the Nexus S (offered by T-Mobile), that hasn’t happened.

Now I’m seeing a similar prediction from Owen Thomas at VentureBeat, arguing that the Verizon picking up the iPhone in its pristine state is a sign that carriers will lose control of the handsets.

I’m not as optimistic about this as I once was. Android has not been helpful in this regard. Because of the way Android is licensed, carriers are free to manipulate it in any way that they choose before installing it on handsets, and manipulate it they do. Apple alone insists that carriers who offer its handsets do so without customizing the phone to suit their needs.

For a number of good reasons (one of which is that they won’t allow carriers to customize the iPhone software or put their logos on the hardware), iOS is unlikely to become the dominant OS in the handset market. Android is an excellent product, and Android handsets are going to be offered across the full handset price range soon enough. RIM and Microsoft aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The question then becomes, is anyone other than Apple going to stand up to the carriers and demand that they control the user experience instead of the carrier. Right now, it doesn’t seem likely.

7 Comments

  1. Well, it seems iOS is still dominating the market when you measure by profit.

  2. and by useful apps. Still looking for a “bang bang diet” like app for Android. Gawd their marketplace is horrid.

  3. I’ve got an HTC Evo on Sprint, and there really isn’t anything to complain about in the way of carrier influence on the user experience. If you pick up the phone and poke around, you’ll find:

    *) A Sprint logo on the front and back of the phone

    *) “Sprint” in small text on the unlock screen.

    ) “Sprint” in the notification bar when you pull it down. This is the standard bit on every mobile that shows you what carrier you’re connected to. Note that it *doesn’t show up in the top bar all the time.

    And that’s it for 95% of my use of the phone. When you open the app drawer and look at the full list of apps there are some carrier-mandated ones (Blockbuster, Amazon MP3, Nascar, Qik, Quickoffice and a few Sprint apps). However, I do this maybe 2-3 times a week, because all the apps I use regularly are on the launcher screens. I suppose I could get all bent out of shape that I can’t delete these apps, but why? They’re not hurting me, and even the ones that run services hardly use any resources.

    Maybe it’s worse on Verizon or T-Mobile, or even on a non-flagship phone on Sprint. But really, ATT has had a much more profound effect on the iPhone user experience with their abysmal network than anything Verizon could lard onto the phone’s UI.

  4. I believe Microsoft also prevents carriers from mucking about with their new phone operating system.

  5. My Poor Nokia E71x (ATT’s version of the E71) is a crippled craptastic phone.

    I love the E71x (programming for it is so easy), but ATT “helpfully” prevents most third party apps from accessing the net without requiring user authorization for every request.

    That means that when I want to use Opera instead of their crap stock browser, I have to click “yes, access internet” every time I click on a link. Sigh.

    Had I known this, I would’ve paid the extra $$$ and gone for the E71. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, you can’t get fooled again.

  6. a lot of people seem concerned about an even higher up battle– the battle between handset makers and OHA (open handset alliance)’s reference Android platform. they point to differing experiences on each phone as a problem, in that people dont know what to expect from android and potentially experiencing confusion on a new device. of course, this open platform is also what lets companies like Samsung develop customized web browsers that use the GPU for hardware acceleration, enabling a slick browsing experience even at 720p.

    Apple insisted on a homogeneous iPhone experience when they went to Verizon, which ought come as no surprise (Apple wants it to be the Apple iPhone, not the Verizon iPhone; they want the prestiege). with regards to carrier plays, how many other companies care about customization, would fight a carrier tooth and nail, have the sway or cachet to get their demands met? I’m trying to picture HTC saying “no, this is our phone, you can’t have it if you’re going to crapware/carrierware it up.” i just dont see what’s in it for them; they’re not trying to deliver consistent & “pure” experiences, they’re playing for share by slicking and re-slicking base OS’s. given that they’re beginning as a remixer, why would they or anyone else oppose further remixing?

  7. @rektide somewhat hits on this, but what I believe is also at play is Apple wants the customer to see them as the company they do business with. The carrier is simply that, a carrier, much in the way FedEx and UPS are when purchasing from Amazon.

    The carriers seem uninterested in completely ceding ground to be simple pipes. Unsurprising since they get revenue from things like VCast. I’m slightly surprised the handset manufacturers — Motorola, HTC, LG, et. al. — have thus far been completely uninterested in owning the customer experience the way Apple does. Culturally, I just don’t thing the manufacturers have it in them to face the customer in the same way. Heck, Google’s uninterested in doing it with phones.

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