Unlocking Smartphones: Just a Start

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Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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27 Responses

  1. Avatar Cletus says:

    Libertarians would call this a reason for government to get out of the phone market. I, however, disagree. My parents recently took a two-month trip through Europe. They were able to buy a phone right off the plane. Thanks to government requirements (OMG REGULATION) that all carriers run on GSM, they were able to easily switch carriers when they wanted without having to buy new handsets. Europe has more competition between cell phone carriers than the USA likely ever will and it is because of and not in spite of government regulation.

    The same thing applies to contract law as it currently stands in the USA. Republicans and libertarian-leaning politicians have been gutting and murdering the rights of consumers. Laws against unconscionable clauses in contracts and laws forbidding contracts to allow consumers to waive their rights are gone. In their place are proscriptions on class-action lawsuits, requirements of binding arbitration according to the laws of some state that the consumer has likely never set foot in that happen to be strangely tilted in the company’s favor, and clauses allowing the companies to alter the terms of agreement unilaterally with zero notice. And that’s before we get to the whole “you didn’t buy a copy, you bought a license” bullshit regarding lines of code that can easily be rewritten in the same conceptual way that I could buy a copied print of some artist’s painting, grab my own paint and brushes, make my own work, and it’s MINE because I bought that copy. I want more government regulation in these arenas, and I want it to protect consumers.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Cletus says:

      If the US were to require all carriers to run on GSM, every carrier not already using GSM would likely go out of business replacing its no-longer-legal network.

      In what way would that be good for consumers?Report

      • As desirable as having everybody on either GSM or CDMA might be, it would be pretty dramatically unfair to two of the four major carriers (and not just in a selling-more-taxi-medallion-hurts-current-medallion-holders sort of way). It’s something that would have been needed to have been done at the outset. Otherwise, basically the government would need to eat the cost of transitioning the networks. Maybe that would be worth it, maybe not.

        Ultimately, though, I think we can split the difference and simply allow handset makers to make devices that will go on multiple networks. I think the market in the US is big enough that it would be worth the while of Apple, Samsung, LG, and new entrants like Lenovo to do it. The Chinese knockoffs wouldn’t, but such is life.Report

        • It’s something that would have been needed to have been done at the outset.

          Yes, absolutely. My recollections of the timing of various events, seen from inside one of the big telecoms back when spectrum allocations were just getting started: (1) GSM squeezed fewer simultaneous conversations out of the spectrum, hence would require more cells/towers/money (but provided better audio quality); (2) it wasn’t entirely clear yet whether CDMA, GSM, or non-GSM TDMA was going to “win”; and (3) the FCC was, at the time, loath to push interoperability requirements onto the carriers. In Europe, interoperability across national boundaries was clearly going to be a requirement from day one. The then-CCITT picked GSM as the standard.Report

          • There was a time when it looked like GSM might be the wrong way to go. But from my understanding, it sort of became self-fulfilling: GSM became the superior (or sufficiently comparable at any rate) because it was chosen.Report

            • Yeah, I recall the CDMA vs TDMA wars. Several unhappy US companies when the ITU-T decided on a particular flavor of TDMA. I was peripherally involved in a couple of standardization projects (not cellular, thank God) and an interesting array of factors get considered. Like, for example, are there any patents, who holds them, and what kinds of terms are they demanding for licensing? IIRC, during the process that chose MPEG as the video standard for commercial digital TV, one of the key events was getting all of the holders of applicable patents to agree on a single common licensing arrangement — things almost fell apart because there were a couple of hold-outs. For a while in the not-too-distant past, it looked like China might decide on a non-MPEG compression for their domestic service so they wouldn’t have to pay MPEG licensing fees.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Cletus says:

      Not all of us are privileged enough to vacation in Europe, let alone for two months.

      How many children would that trip have fed? Would an adolescent thinking about going to college and deciding she couldn’t afford it been able to go if she had the money that trip cost (without so much as a tenth of the carbon footprint)?

      “Screw you, I’ve got mine.”Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Cletus says:

      As mentioned to Vikram, I think we’d be hard-pressed to try to switch everyone over now. The taxpayers would almost certainly have to pick up the tab.

      There might be room for a bifurcation of industry, though. Basically forcing the big four to split up with the network tower owners on one side, selling access to their towers to independent mobile companies. The devil would be in the details. Arguably, with the advent of budget carriers, this is happening anyway. The big difference, though, would be that Verizon (for instance) would not be blocking PagePlus (for instance) from its 4G network or otherwise trying to keep its competitive advantage by knee-capping the little guys.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    While I agree with you 100% in principle, the fact that applications are controlled via the vendor app stores is the reason that smartphones aren’t the huge vector for viruses and malware that PCs are. This isn’t something a freer market acts to prevent.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Smartphones are just as vulnerable to drive-by installations if there are rootable exploits available on the device.

      Given Microsoft, Linux, Solaris, Java’s history of exploits, I’m sure there are plenty of ways to root a phone without “selling” a trojaned binary to someone who installs it willingly.

      I think the reason you don’t see as many viruses on the handheld devices is a bit more complicated than “we don’t let customers screw their phones”. Propagation is harder, there’s a wider variety of operating systems, they’re not as useful as compromised computers, it’s currently *very easy* to get what you want my compromising computers, etc.Report

    • Apps on iPhones and WinPhones have to be installed through the app store (or else the device jailbroken/rooted), though that’s not the case for Android. I can download any apk and install it. Of course, it’s harder to do something that’s going to make substantial system changes because the device is protected by the OS (unless it’s been jailbroken/rooted).

      None of that, though, would change if what I was talking about was implemented. Devices could still be locked down, as far as that goes. They just wouldn’t be carrier-locked.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Imagine using desktops like this.

    I bought a Gateway but I can’t use AOL. I can only use Compuserve. If I wanted to use AOL, I’d have to buy a Dell. (And if you buy an HP, you’re stuck with Prodigy. (Firestarter.))

    I’m pretty sure that we’ll look back at the whole cellphone/carrier thing the way we look back at the walled garden version of the internet. “Seriously? People did that?”Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Jaybird says:

      Only if things actually change in the future, and it’s no longer a norm. I fear that as long as Verizon and Sprint (I think Sprint, definitely Verizon) are allowed to deny access to any devices that aren’t theirs, it’ll be the norm.

      I very much hope that we do reach a “Seriously? People did that?” future, though.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      Like, I can’t run Unix apps on Windows, or Vax apps on mainframes, and even if I can get the source code it uses FORTRAN extensions that IBM doesn’t support? Yeah, nobody would ever put up with that.Report

    • Avatar Ed G. in reply to Jaybird says:

      Desktops did have something similar, with the competing X2/K56flex standards for 56k modems.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Ed G. says:

        So did landlines, once upon a time.

        Different standards are okay, though, provided that it wasn’t the ISP’s intentionally preventing the right kind of modem to go on non-authorized computers. I’m not asking that Verizon and Sprint switch from CDMA. Merely that they don’t use CDMA to control which handsets people use.Report

  4. Avatar Matty says:

    So can I take it you don’t get pay as you go or SIM only contracts?Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Matty says:

      Not following?

      You can get SIM only contracts, but you are limited in which phones you can use. And you’re still constrained to a subset of carriers (those aligned with AT&T or T-Mo). The ability to take a phone from one carrier to another is still very limited.Report

  5. Avatar Matty says:

    Ah OK, in the UK a SIM only means you can use any phone you want the carrier sells you the airtime not the handset. With pay as you go, while you can get a handset preset for a particular network you still have to buy it from the shop and pay separately for your time/data. The companies only provide a phone if you are on contract.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Matty says:

      In the US, you can get a SIM-only plan from the likes of H2O Wireless, but that’s because they’re aligned with AT&T. They send you the SIM card and you supply your own phone. Any unlocked GSM phone is supposed to work, as will any AT&T-branded or AT&T-locked phone.

      But two (Verizon and Sprint) of the four major carriers don’t use SIM cards for voice. . With PagePlus, on Verizon’s network, you have to either have a phone approved by Verizon (though some Verizon-branded phones won’t work).

      The fourth is T-Mobile, which has the best policies, but the sketchiest network of the big boys. Fifth and sixth are MetroPCS and US Cellular, which like Verizon and Sprint don’t use SIM cards, and who are not generally considered to be national networks. MetroPCS was recently purchased by T-Mo.Report

  6. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    If buying cars worked like this, then when I went to a Ford dealer and tried to buy a new car, they shouldn’t be able to require that I only buy a Ford–

    oh, wait.Report

    • Jim, it would be like that if I said “I want to be able to go to a Verizon store and buy a not-Verizon phone.” … which is not what I am saying. At all.

      Rather, I am saying: Verizon should not refuse to let me use a phone on the basis that it’s not one of the comparatively few handsets that they authorized. Which is how it works for many, many other things (Qwest cannot tell me that they will refuse to give me service unless I buy a Qwest phone). Including cell phones, in other countries.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jim Heffman says:

      Actually, it’d be more like if while buying a Ford from Bob’s Car Lot, the agreement said you could only buy insurance from Bob’s Insurance and parts and service from Bob’s Car Lot.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Jim Heffman says:

      It’d be like if you bought a car from Ford, you could only drive on Ford’s own roads. Even if you paid Chevy for access to Chevy’s roads.Report

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