Two different representatives from two different smartphone companies happened to tell me the exact same thing this week:
"The carrier is our customer."
Think about that.
Smartphone makers don't see you, the customer, as their customer. They see the carrier that sells you your data plan and subsidizes the cost of your phone as the customer.
As jarring as that mentality sounds, it sure does explain a lot.
Carriers decide what phones to sell, and if a handset maker doesn't play by a carrier's rules, a phone will never launch. In fact, I've heard stories where carriers demanded a handset maker change a phone's design because the carrier didn't like it. The handset maker complied because it really had no choice.
There's a ton of other evidence of such tight carrier control.
Take a look at any new non-iPhone smartphone. They're all bogged down with apps and unnecessary services installed by the carrier. It's especially bad on Android phones, where you're bombarded with more widgets and apps and other junk from carriers than you could ever hope to use. And you usually can't remove that stuff without hacking your phone.
But let's say you don't care about carrier branding and apps plastered all over your device. Fine. It's annoying, but it doesn't completely ruin the experience. However, there's still a whole other issue with treating the carrier as the customer instead of the actual human being who buys the device.
Today, if a smartphone maker wants to provide new features or bug fixes to your phone via a software update, the carrier has to test and approve the new software first. In some cases, the process can take months, and it's one of the biggest reasons why some handset makers effectively abandon updating their phones within a year.
That's bad for you. You're missing out on the latest and greatest features your smartphone has to offer because of carrier restrictions.
Unfortunately, Apple is the only handset maker right now with enough clout to keep carriers in check. iPhone owners don't have to worry about crapware or untimely software updates. The entire experience is Apple's, not Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint's. Samsung is getting close –– it was able to launch the Galaxy S III simultaneously on all four major carriers this year –– but its phones still suffer from many of the same annoying quirks I listed above.
And now for the real kicker: You're paying for it too. Carriers are happy to subsidize the up-front cost of your phone by forcing you to take at least take a look at all those paid services like contact managers and streaming TV apps. And in the long run, you're actually paying more to the carrier over the course of your contract than if you had just bought the phone at full retail price.
The unfortunate reality is carriers simply have too much control over what goes into devices. As a result, handset maker has to tailor its device to its real customer, not you. And it's really worrisome that hardware companies openly admit that.
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