For the longest time the cell phone industry operated with a mix of OS vendors, handset makers and carriers each providing bits of the whole in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the competition.
This worked in the beginning, but once cellphones were used for more than just making phone calls it sucked Until Apple came along and showed people how much it sucked no one really saw any way to fix it.
It sucked because all three tiers had different goals and visions. The best business interests of AT&T didn't align with those of Motorola or Nokia, much less Symbian or Sun (JavaME). The result was not so much a fusion of form and function but rather a congealed mass of inconsistent implementation mixed with confusing designs shat out upon the consumer.
Apple caused a seismic shift in the industry by collapsing the OS and handset tier into one and completely neutering the carrier, turning them into a dumb connection that sells access only.
The phenomenal success of the iPhone was heralded as a wake-up call to the industry. But instead of waking up, the carriers and handset manufacturers just dreamed bigger. Apple showed them that 50-80% market domination was possible if only they had the coolest product.
Handset manufacturers like Nokia and Samsung bought or developed their own operating systems, tweaked it all out, and peddled it to carriers.
But none of them have enough mojo to force the carriers to toe the line. AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and the rest still insist on adding their little touches to differentiate. They are really fighting to add enough perceived value so they can charge a bigger price and stave off relegation to commodity dumb network access provider.
And back they are to the way things were. Except the carriers are racing ever faster to commodity status.
Handset makers aren't far behind the carriers and they have Google to thank for that. With the booming popularity and sub-zero cost of Android, big handset makers like Samsung can barely differentiate their hardware from cheap Chinese bulk manufacturers. So they add their software touches like TouchWiz and Sense.
The problem with that model is vanilla Android is pretty damn good. So good that the additions like Sense and TouchWiz aren't seen as enough of a premium to be able to capture a significant market share.
Google, with their Galaxy Nexus phone that Samsung makes essentially collapses the OS and handset maker tiers and by selling the phone unlocked they cut any carrier interference out of the picture.
The handset makers and carriers still try their damnedest to fight commodity status. The result is carriers dragging their feet on upgrading the software -- blaming compatibility issues but the reality is not compatibility with the HARDWARE but with their little software add-ons. (See: CyanogenMod for fixing this.)
Microsoft sort of sees the light. They're moving in Apple's control-the-entire-stack direction. They are fed up with relying one handset makers and carriers to fulfill THEIR vision. Whether or not it works is another story. And right now MS seems to be hedging their bets when it comes to phones. They have their hooks deep enough in Nokia to bring everything in-house but haven't pulled the trigger.
And the latest straw grasp by the carriers and handset manufacturers is partnering with Mozilla for "Firefox phones".
This move may bring some smart phones into the price range of "feature" phones. Telefonica has said the phone price will be significantly cheaper than the low-end Android models, meaning Firefox phones can be priced at levels around $50 excluding operator subsidies.
But after switching from T-Mobile to StraightTalk for essentially the same service and a savings of about 33%, and purging the rest of T-Mobiles infection by installing CyanogenMod, I have seen the light. My phone runs faster, has a longer batter life and is more useful.
What the carriers are providing isn't a value add, it is a value minus. T-Mobile's "features" actually made the user experience *worse*. From what I've seen of Verizon and AT&T, they rate right down there with T-Mobile for value. They exist on inertia alone and commodity status awaits.