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Monday, June 08, 2009

T-Mobile highlights why customers should not trust operator-sold notebooks

T-Mobile can be a paradox from an analyst's viewpoint. At one level, it pushes hard on mobile Internet access, with its early provision of Web'n'Walk, and its significant pace in evolving its network to HSUPA and eventually LTE. It also has a sizeable WiFi hotspot presence, albeit as over-priced as many of its peers. It is probably the most evangelical of Europe's operators when it comes to selling embedded-3G notebooks, with 7 models from 6 vendors on its German arm's website (It's UK business is more dongle-centric).

Yet at an application level, it confuses. It has pretty much embraced the open-Internet worldview - when was the last time you heard anyone discuss on-portal T-Zones stuff? I've seen a demo of some sort of Facebook/Ovi cross-platform portal it is pitching, although it's not obvious that it will be accessible to non-T access customers.

And it has an absolute blind-spot when it comes to Skype. It blocks its use on the German iPhone, even over WiFi. If I'm reading it right, Skype will work on home WiFi or non-T-mobile hotspots, but the explanation that "the high level of traffic would hinder our network performance, and because if the Skype program didn’t work properly, customers would make us responsible for it" is an even more transparent fib than most of Gordon Brown's.

Initially I'd thought they'd teamed up with Apple for a German-specific version of the AppStore, which had different local approvals for apps, but it doesn't appear to be that bad, yet. But I have little doubt that any future T-Mo administered appstores would likely have some fairly draconian policies on which applications could be displayed.

Now, lets think back to the previous paragraph. How do you think that smartphone app-censorship might impact an operator's new image as being the PC retail store of choice?

Do you really think that consumers will want to buy PCs from a company that "has previous" in terms of such arbitrary policies? Maybe it might want to exercise similarly arbitrary decisions about what you can and can't install on your new computer? How do you know what software's been pre-loaded on it in the store? Can it be trusted not to interfere with the OS and BIOS? Hmm, why not play it safe and get one from XYZ Electronics down the road, then just get a dongle? At least you can trust those guys not to monkey around with the OS....

OK, I know that most corporate employees are not allowed to download .exe files, on pain of excommunication by their IT departments. But that's not your PC, it's the firm's.

At the moment, all the mobile operators I speak to are salivating over the prospect of selling netbooks with data plans. Even leaving aside the issue of payment plans and subsidies, I think they need to articulate very clearly what their future policies are on apps. The moment someone gets a pop-up saying "Sorry, you are not allowed to install that software" is the point at which the wheels fall off the whole operator-sold notebook phenomenon. Even Apple doesn't stop you installing "unapproved" apps on your iBook....

If T-Mo wants to avoid being labelled as "applicationist", it needs to start being more sensible about things like this. Its shortsightedness is also hastening the day that someone (Google?) just funnels everything through a VPN tunnel and away from the prying eyes of the packet inspection boxes. Or maybe Skype will just start doing realtime steganographic encoding of voice into images or other data streams....

Footnote: yes, I know T-Mo isn't the only operator with draconian policies of this type. However, it is the one that's pushing PC sales the hardest. And that's what doesn't fit about the blending of the two worlds of computing and mobile phones.


Markus Göbel said...

T-Mobile embraces mobile VoIP now for an extra €9.95:


Dean Bubley said...

Yes, I saw that - in fact it was Andy Abramson's post about that which catalysed me to write the post in the first place.

That must be the most bizarre use of the word "embrace" I've ever seen...

It's essentially the same as the difference between Web'n'Walk and Web'n'Walk "Max", which has been around for 2+ years already. Fair enough to offer people a choice, if it's a competitive market, but I still think it's a strategy that will fail utterly, especially given that T-Mo wants to position itself as a mobile broadband leader.

I just don't think that you can sell 3G services with the line: "It's just like ADSL! Except you can't use Skype. Or any other stuff we decide we don't like in the future".