Caution: There is an expletive at the bottom of this post. I thought I’d let you know now. I’ve put a space in between the four letters to make sure your office firewall alarms don’t start blaring (it’s the F word). Normally I’d asterisk out the word. I just couldn’t. Not in this particular context. If I was presenting to the board of Verizon, you know, very old men wearing very white wigs and not a smile between them, I’d still have used the word.
– – –
I’ve had a few emails and phone calls from people prodding me with words like, “So, what about America then?”
They’re asking wondering how I’m getting on with the American mobile operators and in particular how I’ve found the shopping and customer service experience.
“You, er, haven’t posted much on America,” pointed out Ed Hodges of ROK Talk, the other day, “I’m keen to see what you think of the marketplace, especially after what you wrote of Los Angeles last year.”
“I know, yeah, I’m still working on some pieces,” I said as I gazed over to the pile of unopened pay as you go handsets from each operator.
“Oh, so it’s shit is it?” asked Ed.
I took a deep breath, “Well…”
Here it is then, the first in a series of experiential brain-dumps from the US of A. I’ll title them all “The USA Series” so you can find them in the RSS feed.
– – –
When I was back in England and pondering my journey to San Francisco, I thought it would be a cool idea to try buying a ‘shit’ phone from one of the mobile phone shops in America and see what life would be like for a month living with the total opposite of a smart phone.
Just a month or two before, I’d visited Los Angeles for the SMS Text News Unlimited Drinks event there and I took a visit to one of the popular shopping malls there. My prime reason for going was to observe how mobile handsets, contracts, airtime and accessories were retailed to consumers. My secondary reason was to see how the locals used their wireless technology.
If you recall, I returned from the shopping mall experience absolutely shocked. The biggest surprise: No mobile phone shops. GAPs, American Outfitters, SAKS Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Bed Bath & Beyond, Borders — all your big, big consumer brands — and NO mobile operator stores. There was a little Palm store round the back by the Mall’s trash (“rubbish”) bins with nobody in it and a very bored sales executive slumped half asleep on the counter.
Sitting back in my hotel room, I opened the laptop and quoted Jaws 1 (“We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”). Yes, America’s mobile industry is nailed.
You know it’s bad when you’re sitting in The Cheesecake Factory minding your own business trying to get your iPhone to log on to the wifi connection of the Apple store across the road and two young twenty-somethings arrive at the table next to you. I’m not looking at their dress, or their faces. I’m looking at their handsets. The first thing they do is sit down and bring out their phones. My face mentally drops as I realise one girl is sporting a piece of shit Motorola RAZR and another is sporting an abhorrent rounded clamshell rubbish LG. There’s no hope. No hope for America for the time being. Write it off. Forget applications, forget innovation.
Let me be clear: Motorola is a fine organisation and I’m particularly enamoured with their recent innovative handsets. But the RAZR — a brilliant success story in its time — has, for me, become a super illustration of just how the American mobile operators have screwed the industry and put it back 5-10 years against the rest of the mainstream mobile culture in the West. What can you do with a RAZR? Photos? Yes but poor quality — useless. Download stuff? Forget it. Play MP3s? With great difficulty. Put applications on it? No. Well, yes, but they’re so limited. Got a great idea for a mobile application? Just forget it with America at the moment. Mobile web? Rubbish. Book your flight from it? Only if you’re making a telephone call. And the mobile operators are busy flogging RAZRs by the truckload on 24 month contracts to price sensitive consumers who, as far as they’re concerned want a handset to call people. By voice. By VOICE! And maybe do some texting. That’s IT. Because everything else sucks.
Of course there are exceptions. Or an exception. The Apple iPhone is slowly, slowly changing the state of the United States — it’s rocketing some users toward an almost nirvana-like mobile experience compared to the millions wielding RAZRs.
Generally, when I mention ‘RAZR’, I’m using that as a blanket term for handsets that were good in their time but shouldn’t be sold to consumers now and especially not on 24 month contracts as we, as an industry, are going to have to wait TWO YEARS before that person can be rescued into the real mobile world.
Sitting there in my hotel room, I began to wonder why there aren’t mobile operator stores in some of the big malls. I went hunting to another Los Angeles mall that day. I didn’t believe that there were shopping centres in America (and remember we’re talking ultra fashionable, ultra hip Sunset Boulevard territory) that didn’t contain some proper mobile operator stores. Let’s say Sprint. AT&T. T-Mobile or something.
Consulting the mall directory I was initially delighted to find that there was an AT&T store at this Hollywood mall. I purposefully strode past international brand, after international brand, ignoring the Sienna Miller and pregnant Nicole Ritchie lookalikes until I got to the end of the mall. I turned, went back again. I couldn’t find the AT&T store. Eventually after carefully retracing my steps and asking a few mall staff, I located the ‘store’. It was a piss-poor ‘stand’. Not even a real shop. Effectively an apple cart with phones and a few accessories hanging on it. This is is AT&T? The almighty “more bars [i.e. better signal] in more places” AT&T? I did an immediate about-turn and exited in disgust.
Mobile handsets aren’t fashionable in America. They are tools. They’re nothing better than a slightly enhanced walkie talkie (in fact, many of the handsets on sale actually are glorified walkie talkies). They’re stored on the hip in Wild West gunslinger holsters. They’re consulted only for the purposes of utility. They are simply a utility. The Brits, the Italians.. (list continues) have a relationship with their handsets. It’s through their handsets that they deliver, manage and live their lives. Take away the mobile phone from an American and he or she will be mildly inconvenienced. Do the same to a European (for example) and they will rip your fingers, arms, legs and eyelids off until you give it back.
I understand I’m making quite a few sweeping statements — there are, of course, exceptions, but generally I’m right. I’ll win any argument with anyone who reckons that America isn’t backward when it comes to mobile. I just need to take you out into the street — even in poncy liberal San Francisco — and we’ll be 10 paces from someone yapping away on a 5 year old Samsung with a pretty plastic aerial extended (and what’s more they’ll be 5 months into a new 24 month contract as well).
There’s a lot of different issues boiling away that all combine to cause this. Everything from consumer ignorance to idiot operator policies to historical trends. But what of the mobile shop experience? This is, after all, the land of service (“Make it a great day”) and ‘can-do-sir’. Dire or phenomenal? I was betting phenomenal.
I wasn’t entirely correct.
A sneak peak on the upcoming post’s contents:
* AT&T’s single minded focus on a young and ugly girl
* Verizon’s firm “f uck-off”
* Sprinting ahead
* T-Mobile’s fake smiles