Friday, 20 June 2008

Phone Smart

Navigating the New World of Cellphones, as the Options Pile Up

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Published: June 19, 2008

It’s your cellphone. You should be able to do what you want with it.
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The next-generation iPhones will be available next month and operate the much faster 3G wireless network.
Times Topics: Bob Tedeschi

So why can’t you?

While the Internet has opened up more choices for how consumers get information, entertainment and bargains, cellphone carriers have managed to create a nation of customers who have little choice but to shrug and accept whatever conditions their networks impose.

Imagine if Comcast or Time Warner Cable — no advocates of consumer choice — told viewers that they could buy only certain televisions, and those TVs would play only certain shows and, by the way, wouldn’t work on another cable network. There would be a rebellion.

Yet cellular networks start from this baseline, then add a few more obstacles. Want to check your e-mail? It will cost you. Use the phone overseas? Maybe. Change carriers? Get ready to open the wallet.

Carriers say they are interested in giving customers more freedom. They are opening their networks to devices from other cellphone carriers — should customers wish to bolt — and are quickly pumping out more iPhone pretenders to allow easy mobile Web surfing, rather than confining customers to whatever games, applications or content the carrier has chosen to plant onto the phone’s screen.

This column will be devoted to helping consumers find choices. More choice can mean more confusion, but understanding how the cellphone market works and discovering strategies for getting the most for your money can beat back that chaos. Twice a month, this column will examine new phones and their myriad features. It will also sort through the cellphone plans, explain the fine print and find the loopholes. And as more phones allow you to add applications, the column will identify the most useful ones.

For now, consumers can take solace in a recent industry shift: all-you-can-eat data plans. After Verizon and AT&T burst out of the gate in February with unlimited voice plans for $100 monthly, T-Mobile quickly raised the stakes to include unlimited messaging, and Sprint Nextel trumped them all.

Sprint still stands as the most generous of the $100 flat-fee services because it includes unlimited voice, text and data, which means unlimited Web access. Internet access is the killer application for phones, just as it was for the computer. Combine such a feature with a smartphone that’s actually worthy of Web surfing, analysts say, and you’re on the fast track to round-the-clock geekdom.

“It’s really about the combination of all-you-can-eat plans and a smartphone that gives you a good mobile Web experience,” said Tole J. Hart, a Gartner analyst. “That’s what will make you feel liberated.”

The next-generation Apple iPhone, available on July 11 from AT&T, is likely to fit the bill, but the tale is slightly more complicated. The current iPhone comes with a $20 unlimited Web surfing fee, to go along with whatever voice plan AT&T customers choose and, in many cases, extra charges for text messaging. (The cheapest individual voice plans are $40 monthly and go up to $100. IPhone users can also choose the $100 unlimited voice plan.)

On the new iPhones, using the Web will cost $30 monthly, and users must sign a two-year contract, bringing their additional costs during that span to $240 just for data service.

That’s more than the $200 price reduction on the cheaper of the new iPhones. But the buyer will get a new phone that operates on the much faster 3G wireless network (in most urban areas), meaning owners will have significantly more reason to use them when they are not near Wi-Fi connections, where the first iPhones were most useful.

While life remains complicated for AT&T’s iPhone users and smartphone users on some other networks, Sprint is hoping to generate some momentum with its simpler, more generous all-you-can-eat plan. Of the company’s 55 million subscribers, just 8 percent are using the mobile Web, the company said.

When the company’s new iPhone imitator, the Samsung Instinct, has its debut on Friday, the company hopes users will be tempted into a chat/text-messaging/Web surfing frenzy on its touch screen.

Only about 12 percent of the mobile phone users in the United States have unlimited data plans, according to M:Metrics, a mobile industry statistical firm, and fewer than 10 percent visit the Web from their phones. That’s because most cellphones of the small, flip-phone variety offer a teeth-grinding, Web lite experience with a slow connection, clunky navigation and a paltry selection of “channels” picked by the carrier.

Even if such browsing were free, analysts said, users would bristle at the small screens, tiny buttons and byzantine navigation options offered by most conventional handsets. But that will “absolutely change,” said Seamus McAteer, an M:Metrics analyst, as all-you-can-eat plans and good smartphones proliferate.

By the end of this year, Mr. McAteer predicted, each of the major carriers will offer smartphones for $100 to $200 to compete with the iPhone. So, for non-AT&T customers who are considering a new contract and a shiny new — and free — dumbphone, it may be worth holding out and spending a few extra bucks to peek at the mobile promised land.

Quick Calls

¶Can’t wait to print out the shot you just snapped on your phone? The Polaroid PoGo, a pocket-size instant digital printer for cellphones, will arrive in early July, months earlier than expected. The printers, which are wireless and inkless, produce full-color, 2-inch-by-3-inch photos in less than a minute. Best Buy will have first ones, followed later in the month by Target. Expected price: about $150.

¶Travelers too lazy or too enthralled by their journeys to keep comprehensive journals will soon be able to outsource the job to their cellphones. Telestial, an international cellphone network, plans to introduce a service in August that tracks your travels and posts (to your private Web page) stock photos of everywhere you’ve been. Then while you’re sitting on the runway waiting for takeoff, you can post entries on your online travel journal via text message. The service is included in the price of Telestial’s international phone packages or SIM cards.

¶Gas prices have created a surge of public transit novices who have no clue where to find a bus or train. Enter Google. This month, it introduced a new version of Google Maps for mobile devices, featuring tips on where to pick up public transit and when. The software works only on BlackBerrys and other Java-compatible phones, but should work with other devices in the not-too-distant future.

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