Monday, March 19, 2012

The US mobile industry is hopelessly behind the times

I'm a bit irritated at the US mobile industry at the moment. In almost every other country in the world, I can walk into a store, buy an awesome phone, and walk out without having to sign two years of my life away to a carrier. I can do prepaid and, if I don't like the service, I can usually go elsewhere pretty easily. This is not the story in the US as I found out Friday while trying to hunt down either an iPhone 4S or the Galaxy Nexus S.

I started with AT&T and asked questions about the iPhone. The agent was amazingly nice and knowledgeable until I mentioned that I wanted the phone WITHOUT a contract. Then, she began talking to me like I was some kind of freak, even telling me I could forget about getting a nice phone because they all come with contracts. She asked me repeatedly 'what's wrong with a contract?' and really couldn't understand why anyone in their right mind wouldn't want to enslave themselves to a carrier. It's "only" two years, she pointed out.

That call went nowhere. But that was kind of expected. After all, it was AT&T and I didn't expect too much. Next up, Verizon.

My friendly Verizon rep explained all the wonderful options I had for smartphones (even though I told her I was interested in a particular smartphone and didn't need to know my options, and went through all of the 'affordable' plans Verizon offered (even though I started the conversation saying I didn't want a contract). When I stopped her and reminded her I wanted to do prepaid, she didn't miss a beat and said 'No problem, we'll just run a credit app and get you approved". For prepay? No. Apparently, even though many of them run on the same network, Verizon segments their prepaid customers from their post pay. I cannot simply purchase a Verizon phone (like the iPhone) from eBay and have it activated as a prepay on the network. Even though it makes complete sense that I should be able to, I can't. I have to sign a slave agreement. If I want to go prepaid, I will not get a smartphone from Verizon and will be stuck with a very small collection of feature phones. NOT ACCEPTABLE!

I am frustrated beyond belief! At this point, I am not willing to do business with either company because:

1) I'm still not willing to sign away two years of my life just to get a few hundred dollars off of a phone and the 'permission' to use it on their network and

2) I'm not going to do business with a company that tells me 'we want your business and we're willing to force you to stay here even if you're unhappy, which is what a contract does.

Now, someone did tell me yesterday that I may be able to purchase any AT&T phone online and have it activated as prepay on the AT&T network. I'll be investigating this today but I'm not terribly hopeful.

Contrast my experience yesterday with the experience of a friend of mine in the UK last Wednesday:

She wanted a nice smartphone and knew which one she wanted. She walked into a store, purchased a new phone, and put her SIM card in it. Walked out. End of transaction. No contract, no upgrade fee, nothing. Just a quick "this is what I want, here is my money" transaction where both people involved were satisfied. And, if she isn't happy with service, she can go elsewhere by doing the exact same thing.

A system like the rest of the world has makes sense. It means the mobile companies actually have to work for your business. It's more than just cool phones because the cool phones don't give them any advantage. Here in the US, there's zero incentive to give you a great experience because they own you for two freaking years and it shows.

I want to see one of the big prepaid companies step up and get some cool phones. I don't care if they have to cut a deal with a Chinese manufacturer who makes iPhone clones or whatever. I want a good service free of a contract that doesn't treat me like I'm one of the dregs of humanity simply because I don't want to sign a contract. But even if I were low income or had bad credit, what should it matter to these companies? Why would I be any less desirable as a customer? I'm giving them my money the same as a postpaid customer would be. Would my money be worth any less if I were low income or had bad credit? According to at least two phone companies (AT&T and Verizon) it would be. They wouldn't want me as a customer if I wanted a nice phone. They want me in the feature phone ghetto with a FEW low end smartphone options.

Wake up US mobile industry! You're way behind the times and it's going to start costing you customers if you aren't 'careful.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Richard Stallman and the Free Software Disconnect

I respect Richard Stallman.   As free software advocate, President of the Free Software Foundation, and creator of the GNU Public License, he's done more than probably anyone else on the planet to make sure users have freedom in both their hardware and software choices. Stallman believes that sharing is right and good and that everyone should benefit when a new invention or innovation is made.  He's never wavered, even for the sake of convenience, and refuses to use proprietary software even when there are perhaps no Free Software options available. For that, and many other things, everyone who works in IT, and particularly software developers, owe Stallman a debt of gratitude.

Unfortunately, for as much as Stallman has contributed to the Free Software movement, he's also one of its greatest enemies. He's acerbic, argumentative, over the top, and unyielding on even the smallest issue. He is often rather rude, unthinking, and believes he's right in spite of all evidence to the contrary. He's an idealist who has no concept how the real world - the world that developed after his time at MIT in the 1960's and 1970's, actually operates. He is not the kind of man you can be lukewarm on; not one you can take or leave. Stallman requires a reaction. You either love him or you hate him and the community seems to be pretty evenly divided on the topic.

Yesterday was a good example of Stallman in action. During an interview with Chris Fisher and Bryan Lunduke on The Linux Action Show, Stallman repeatedly interrupted the hosts to correct their 'incorrect' use of the term 'Linux' (it's GNU/Linux for him, thank you very much) and often pretended that he couldn't understand simple questions instead of giving real answers. When Lunduke, a programmer who is a Linux advocate and writes some proprietary software, challenged Stallman and asked if he believed the right to Free Software was more important than his daughter eating Stallman, not truly surprising those who've heard him before, answered an unequivocal 'yes'.  At one point, he even wished every business that created proprietary software failed and it didn't matter if it put people out of work.

So how is a programmer supposed to make money?  'Integration and custom software', says Stallman, who also suggested that, if Lunduke and other programmers - people who may have spent their lives and money perfecting their skills, can't make a living doing those things perhaps they should stop developing software and go do something else.

He believe the right to Free Software is that important.

Obviously, Stallman is a bit off base. His narrow definition of freedom only accepts what he defines as freedom and what he values. It doesn't take into account the freedom of users to voluntarily transact with each other and willingly trade that freedom for something they value.  In Stallman's world, those who write proprietary software are immoral and evil; they're out to destroy society and are contributing to the demise of the sharing culture. While he's not completely wrong on many of those points, labeling someone as immoral or evil just because of code they write is a bit extreme in almost any rational sense.

But, for all his abrasiveness, Stallman remains a giant in the software world and rightfully so. He's one of the very few people who put their money where their mouth is when it comes to technology freedom. He refuses to spend money with anyone who violates users freedoms and has publicly spearheaded several campaigns against companies such as Sony and Microsoft for their freedom stealing technologies.

I do not hate Richard Stallman. In fact, I admire him quite a bit. But I believe that we live in a much different world than he did in the 60's and 70's and proprietary software is a part of that world. Part of allowing others freedom is allowing them the right to trade that freedom for something else. No one should be forced to use non-free software but people should have the choice to use it. They should be educated as to why it's bad, why the free alternatives are better, and the damage they might be doing to their own freedom and society as a result of using proprietary solutions, but they should not be banned from doing so. Doing that is simply trading one form of tyranny for another and that's no more freedom than what Stallman is currently fighting against.

Video of Stallman Interview on The Linux Action Show:


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Oklahoma Libertarian Party reaches ballot access signature goal

I'm proud to announce that the Oklahoma Libertarian Party reached a major goal this morning. Earlier today, Presidential Candidate RJ Harris and others from the state party handed in 51,000 signatures collected over a nine month period petitioning the state to allow Libertarians to be listed on the Oklahoma ballot this November. While the signatures still need to be vetted by the State, this could be the first time Libertarians appear on the Oklahoma ballot in over 10 years.

The ability to collect that many signatures in only nine months is a testament of how sick Oklahoma citizens are of the two party duopoly in our state and country. We want change and people are willing to put their name down to bring that change about.

While I'm sure there will be challenges to the signatures, the mere fact that they exist means that the two parties can't pretend they meet all Oklahoma voter needs anymore. They can't hide their head in the sand and pretend like third parties in Oklahoma are irrelevant or that voters don't really care. 51,000 Oklahoman's have spoken and demanded change. Win or lose this signature challenge, Oklahoma Libertarians can't be ignored anymore.

That is a win for everyone.