A New Way to Count

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Over the weekend, we got news that AT&T will be buying T-Mobile USA for something to the tune of $39 billion. That’s a hefty chunk of change, but I’m going to focus down on a few things that I read in GigaOM that caught my eye. GigaOM present a fairly decent argument as to why this is really really bad for customers, and I have a tendency to agree with a lot of what was said, namely in this piece, look at what they say about Android smartphones:

Don’t be surprised if you see AT&T impose its own will on what apps and service are put on its Android smartphones. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the worst phone company in the U.S.(according to Consumer Reports) tries to create its own app store and force everyone to buy apps through it.

Notably, the paragraph talks specifically about Android-powered handsets (which are “open,” mind you). Not only are a whole pantload of atrocities to net neutrality being committed due in large part to this whole “open” malarkey (which is another story for another day), I’m sure we’re going to see even more horrible stuff perpetrated by AT&T and Verizon as time rolls on. Having a choice between all of two carriers in the US is not a happy solution to me, which is why I’m looking forward to a future that doesn’t explicitly involve me having to fork over half a paycheck every month just to use my phone. As these companies become more powerful, they limit the amount of innovation that can occur in the portable computers and smartphones that are out on the market, mostly because they can then restrict what devices can be used on their network. There are always ways around this, but it’s a scary future, backed up here:

Phone Handset Makers. Before the merger was announced, the handset makers such as HTC and Motorola had two major carriers who could buy their GSM-based phones. They just lost any ability to control price and profits on handsets because now there is a single buyer that can dictate what GSM phones come to market. Even with LTE becoming the standard for the 4G world, it would essentially be a market dominated by three buyers (should Sprint go with LTE), which would place handset makers at the mercy of the giants.

That isn’t to say that this is the end of the road for handset manufacturers, however. Specifically, I think Apple has seen this coming for a while, and has been looking at things from all angles for some time now. On the one hand, they had to give a lot to be able to partner with AT&T, but AT&T gave in and netted themselves with millions of subscribers because they took on Apple’s revolutionary phone when no one else would. I imagine they also looked at the uphill battle they had to fight to get there and said, “What if we couldn’t partner with a carrier, what then?”. The answer came in the form of last year’s iPod Touch. In an article from Engadget:

…and it’s the most glaring sign yet that the next generation touch will flippin’ finally boast a camera (or just a way around that SMS-based activation?)…

Emphasis mine.

Also, from Apple’s support site:

What information do I need to call someone using FaceTime?

To call someone using FaceTime, you need their phone number or email address. Which one you use is determined by the device you are calling:
When calling an iPhone 4: Use the phone number of the person you are calling.
When calling an iPad 2, iPod touch, or FaceTime for Mac user: Use the email address designated for FaceTime of the person you are calling.

So, in short: Apple is trying to craft an ecosystem that is not reliant upon any single carrier to deliver the sort of innovation, creativity, and communication that has taken the world by storm. All you need now is an Internet connection, and that can be found just about everywhere. Think about it: instead of paying through the nose (in addition to losing an arm, leg, and first-born child) to use an iPhone, all you’ll need in the future is a cheap mobile hotspot, the kind that are available everywhere right now. The kind that you can get for $50/month or less. The kind that can have five devices tethered to them. The kind that enable face-to-face conversations with your friends through FaceTime. Brilliant.

When I stood in line for an iPad 2 and came away from the experience empty-handed, I started wondering why. After asking the Apple folks that were present, it became pretty clear to me that they had massive stock of wifi-based models, but very few 3G models1. I considered that for a moment as I ordered my new one online, and realized that this was Apple’s gambit. They’re trying to push their devices away from reliance on anyone or anything. (via)

The end result is still grim for most people, however, since the average person shopping for an iPhone isn’t going to be savvy to Apple’s future plans, they’re just looking for nice piece of kit to throw in their pocket or handbag. If control is taken away from consumers (control=choice), then the carriers will dictate how much and when people pay for each device. They’ll be able to perpetuate this madness with words like this:

Further, we recognize that there have been meaningful recent moves toward openness, including the introduction of open operating systems like Android. In addition, we anticipate soon seeing the effects on the market of the openness conditions we imposed on mobile providers that operate on upper 700 MHz C-Block spectrum, which includes Verizon Wireless, one of the largest mobile wireless carriers in the U.S.

In light of these considerations, we conclude it is appropriate to take measured steps at this time to protect the openness of the Internet when accessed through mobile broadband.

What a crock. Also: scary, because that’s where we’re headed. Now that AT&T and Verizon are effectively the only carriers in the US, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be throwing their weight around in the government to try to get ignorant legislators to give them even more power.

AT&T points out that the combination of T-Mobile USA and AT&T “provides fast, efficient and certain solution to impending spectrum exhaust challenges facing AT&T and T-Mobile USA in key markets due to explosive demand for mobile broadband.” What we’re seeing here is AT&T using what some call a manufactured spectrum crisis — which the FCC has built to a fever pitch in the last two years — in order to shove this deal through the regulatory process. This is a deal that will ultimately be worse for consumers by reducing the number of nationwide wireless providers and consolidating much of the high-quality spectrum in the hands of the nation’s two largest carriers.

This is horrible for the consumer. Sure, AT&T will sugar coat the whole thing and make it look like they just handed you the world on a silver platter, but the bottom line is that they want to control what you get and how you get it.

Now I understand that carrier dependence is not the same as Net Neutrality, but there are certainly more similarities than differences. While Apple can’t necessarily fix the problems with Net Neutrlity, they can change the way people communicate around the world and create more alternatives for more people.

With iOS devices proliferating throughout the world at an amazing rate, it won’t be long until calling your friend in France and talking to them face-to-face from the palm of your hand will be commonplace and free. If you read the writing on the wall, you’ll see that it’s already begun.

1 I’d imagine that Apple also knows that 3G is reaching its EOL (end-of-life) soon, and doesn’t want its customers having a poor experience. If I were Apple, this would be something I’d be seriously considering, as well. The 3G versions are different from the wifi-only models in small ways, and it makes a difference to the overall experience. For the record, I do like the ease of the 3G model a whole lot more.

Thanks to Dazzie D for the picture.

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Freedom from numbers

For years now, I’ve been a loyal user of Google. I can remember the day I made the transition from .Mac to the power of the Google. It was quite an interesting day. I was convinced that Google was the way to go. Everything in sync, all the time. All my information, my photos, my calendars, email, everything. Everything was going to live in the cloud with the Google overlords watching benevolently as I used their services, added to their search statistics, usage patterns, and more. I became obsessed with keeping everything together, everything synchronized across multiple devices, using their servers as a free way to organize my life.

What I learned, however, was that I wasn’t as much interested in the sync or the connectivity, I was more interested in not losing everything. Being a student and a geek for many years meant that I was always trying to push the limits of technology in the classroom. I was using my 12″ Powerbook G4 in classes long before teachers were comfortable with the idea. I was tethered to my Nokia 6600 through bluetooth and surfing the web happily while my teachers lectured. My mind was busy, I took copious notes, and, come exam time, had a far easier time studying than my peers with binders and notebooks full of handwritten scribble (“When did we talk about that? Was it before or after the thing about the guy…?” *Command+F* “Nevermind, found it.”)

When my computer suffered a critical hard drive failure, however, it became clear that I needed a way to back everything up in the case of a similar failure. I lost almost everything. I had managed to backup a significant portion of my (for those days) gargantuan music library (60 GB!), so it wasn’t a total loss, but my notes, papers, research…all gone. I was upset, which is why I started using Google Docs. I never wanted to be left in the position of losing everything and being without some record of my past. Obviously, using Google Docs led me to Gmail, and Google Calendar, and Google, well, everything.

There’s a special insanity that comes from using Google products, as I’m sure is true of using basically any product almost exclusively, but Google’s is particularly sinister and particularly ubiquitous. In a matter of a few months, I had made the transition to Google almost completely, and I started learning to do things “The Google Way.”

This refers to the accumulation of knowledge, facts, data. You essentially start to look at your life as a series of interconnected services, all of which are always accessible and always updated and live in this magical land known as “The Web.” It’s comforting. You don’t have to worry about software updates, managing resources, or crashes. You just open your web browser, and you have Google (I mean that almost literally, since almost every single browser has a little search box that takes you through the goog’s massive brain). And it’s free! Wow!

Then you look closer, and you realize something. Google has eaten your life.

You’ve given them everything: your contacts, events, email, documents. Literally everything you need to make your life work. They have it all. In return, they gave you the tools to create more, give them more. Sure, there are privacy concerns there. How many articles have you read about Google’s scary in-email advertising? It’s not really invading anything, and they’re not really “reading” your email, but people are creeped out by it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s like cheating on your taxes, and then opening a fortune cookie that says, “Cheating is bad!” It’s not meant for you, it’s a random cookie from a bag of a thousand, but it feels like it’s for you, and you get all weirded out and feel guilty (I’m not saying it’s ok to cheat on your taxes, just trying to illustrate an example).

Even more sinister, however, is how Google has made you a slave to numbers.

Your inbox, your unread count on Google reader, your new voicemails on Google Voice, your unread Waves. These and more pull you in a thousand directions, trying to coax you back in from productivity, focus, or wherever else you may have been doing. Suddenly, instead of reading that book you wanted to read, you’re wrapped up in a conversation with a friend from halfway across the world while reading the latest Guardian headlines. Then you’re behind, but those numbers keep getting larger, and you can’t get to that paper until your unread RSS count hits zero.

You’ve gone crazy.

So, I decided to pull the plug on all that. No more google. I got a subscription to MobileMe, synced all my contacts, and was on my way. I don’t have an “unread” count anymore, just a folder full of sites that I like to check. If I have time, I read them. If my day is too busy, I don’t. The world will survive, it moves on. I don’t need to check my inbox constantly. I can, if I want, but I like knowing that my email is there for me to take care of when I actually have time to take care of it.

It’s not freedom from the privacy that was my victory, it was regaining appreciation for doing things my own way. Having my computer, my iPad, and my iPhone tied together with a service that is expressly made to keep them in sync is amazing (like the old ads for Mac OS X Tiger, it feels “built-in, not bolted on.”), but having the ability to handle my work my way? Beautiful.