Why Cell Phone Service Providers Don’t Matter

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AT&T is not a great cellphone service provider. Recently, Consumer Reports reported that of the nation's major carriers, AT&T is the worst carrier in every category (service, data, customer support etc) in nineteen out of twenty-six cities surveyed. In the study, Verizon was the overall winner.

Neither result is surprising.

The iPhone is a fantastic little computer, but its service can be laughable. Whenever a friend of mine switches from Verizon to AT&T, I realize that my days of talking to him or her on the phone are numbered.

My iPhone-toting friends and relatives' voices won't come through clearly; they'll drop my calls, and there are whole neighborhoods where their phones won't even ring. But how much does network quality really matter? Here's why AT&T will continue to have a strong, devoted customer base despite shoddy service and high prices — as long as it has exclusive rights to the iPhone.

Droid Disappoints

There was a lot of excitement surrounding Motorola Droid's launch on Verizon. And no, Apple fanboys, it's not because people hate the iPhone. If the iPhone couldn't come to Verizon, perhaps this would be the next best thing. Well, it is the next best thing. The Droid is a great phone, but in my experience over the last few weeks, it falls short.

Android Market, the Droid's app store, is seriously lacking. While the phone boasts a built-in turn-by-turn direction application, its map system isn't as easy to use, intuitive, good-looking or graceful as the iPhone's, which surprised me since they're both basically Google applications. The Droid's camera may have 5 megapixels, but it's insanely slow and takes terrible pictures. It's hard to zoom in on web pages without inadvertently hitting a link (that is to say, the Droid's double-click-to-zoom system is inferior to the iPhone's multitouch system). It won't sync with iTunes. The phone is heavy, and its battery cover comes off too easily. It's no iPhone.

The Droid is still a great smartphone — its huge capacitive touchscreen is beautiful, and I appreciate its slide-out physical keyboard. But I believe the iPhone is still the nation's best available touchscreen "app phone" (and I'm not alone). Still, many argue, the Droid's real "killer app" is its fast, reliable network: Verizon.

Talking on phones is so Aught-ies

Unfortunately for just about every cellphone maker (but not for lazy service providers), most of what people want to do with their smartphones has little to do with network speed or good reception. Neither is necessary for texting, sending or receiving emails, or even checking the weather on a small, dedicated widget — that's all possible with just one tiny service bar and an EDGE data network. You certainly don't need a great network for GPS reception, which relies on satellites, not cellphone towers. You don't need it to play games (side note: The iPhone has Wurdle, Android Market does not), read pre-downloaded e-books, watch movies, look at your calendar or listen to podcasts. You don't need it to take pictures or video. You don't need it when you're at home and have Wi-Fi. In general, you'll need some access to a network, but by no means do you need five bars of service or 3G speeds.

Service bars are great if you ever need to talk on the phone, and 3G is great (well, passable) if you want to stream video, but those aren't the killer apps for smartphones. If you're someone who loves talking on the phone (maybe you even have a Bluetooth headset!), then you're not the ideal iPhone customer. But you're also one of a dying breed. These days, when I pick up the phone to call a friend, I feel like I'm doing something rude and foreign. I fear that she'll think, "You couldn't have done this by text or email? Or as a DM on Twitter?" I associate talking on the phone with long hold waits for doctor's offices and customer service help lines.

You can rip my iPhone from my cold, dead hands

The iPhone has shown that the best cellphone service provider is only as good as the best hardware it offers. Given a choice between a great phone and great service, people will chose the object they can see in their pocket and show off to their friends every time. That's not an encouraging fact for smartphone users who actually care about network speed and call quality. Meanwhile, Verizon will either have to get the iPhone on its network (one analyst believes there's a 70 percent chance that Verizon will get the iPhone in 2010), or keep trying for something better than the attractive, but far from game-changing Droid.

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