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Submission + - What's Keeping US Phones in the Stone Age?

knapper_tech writes: After seeing the iPhone introduction in the US, I was totally confused by how much excitement it generated in the US. It offered no features I could see beyond my Casio W41CA's capabilities. I had a lot of apprehension towards the idea of a virtual keypad and the bare screen looked like a scratch magnet. Looks aren't enough. Finally, the price is rediculous. The device is an order of magnitude more expensive than my now year-old keitai even with a two-year contract.

After returning to the US, I've come to realize the horrible truth behind iPhone's buzz. Over the year I was gone, US phones haven't really done anything. Providers push a miniscule lineup of uninspiring designs and then charge unbelievable prices for even basic things like text messages. I was greeted at every kiosk by more tired clamshells built to last until obselescense, and money can't buy a replacement for my W41CA. I finally broke down and got a $20 Virgin phone to at least get me connected until I get over my initial shock. In short, American phones suck, and iPhone is hopefully a wakeup call to US providers and customers. Why is the American phone situation so depressing?

Before I left for Japan about a year ago, I was using a Nokia 3160. It cost me $40 US and I had to sign a one year contract that Cingular later decided was a two-year contract. I was paying about $40 a month for service and had extra fees for SMS messages.

After I got to Kyoto, I quickly ended up at an AU shop and landed a Casio W41CA. It does email, music, pc web browsing, gps, fm radio, tv, phone-wallet, pictures (2megapixel), videos, calculator etc. I walked out of the store for less than ¥5000 (about $41) including activation fees, and I was only paying slightly over ¥4000 (about $33) per month. That included ¥3000 for a voice plan I rarely used and ¥1000 for effectively unlimited data (emails and internet).

Perhaps someone with more knowledge of the costs facing American mobile providers can explain the huge technology and cost gap between the US and Japan. Why are we paying so much for such basic features?

At first, I thought maybe it was something to do with network infrastructure. The US is a huge land area and Japan is very tiny. However, Japan would have lots of towers because of the terrain. Imagine something like Colorado covered in metropolitan area. Also, even though places like rural New Mexico exist, nobody has an obligation to cover them, and from the look of coverage maps, no providers do. Operating a US network that reaches 40% of the nation's population requires nowhere near reaching 40% of the land area. The coverage explanation alone isn't enough.

Another possibility was the notion that because Americans keep their phones until they break, phone companies don't focus much on selling cutting edge phones and won't dare ship a spin-chassis to Oklahoma. However, with the contract life longer, the cost of the phone could be spread out over a longer period. If Americans like phones that are built to last and then let them last, the phones should be really cheap. From my perspective, they are rediculously priced, so this argument also fails.

The next exlpanation I turned to is that people in the US tend to want winners. We like one ring to rule them all and one phone to establish all of what is good in phone fashion for the next three years. However, Motorola's sales are sagging as the population got tired of dime-a-dozen RAZR's and subsequent knockoffs. Apparently, we have more fashion sense or at least desire for individuality than to keep buying hundreds of millions of the same design. Arguing that the US market tends to gravitate to one phone and then champion it is not making Motorola money.

At last I started to wonder if it was because Americans buy less phones as a whole, making the cost of marketing as many different models as the Japanese prohibitive. However, with something like three times the population, the US should be more than enough market for all the glittery treasures of Akiba. What is the problem?

I'm out of leads at this point. It's not like the FCC is charging Cingular and Verizon billions of dollars per year and the costs are getting passed on to the consumer. Japanese don't have genetically superior cellphone taste. I remember that there was talk of how fierce mobile competition was and how it was hurting mobile providers' earnings. However, if Japanese companies can make money at those prices while selling those phones, what's the problem in the US? It seems to me more like competition is non-existent and US providers are ramming yesteryear's designs down our throats while charging us an arm and a leg! Someone please give me some insight.
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What's Keeping US Phones in the Stone Age?

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