Stuff I Say

Why are phones supposed to be free, anyway?

Posted in Apple, Japan, Mobile Computing, Mobile Telephony by 51future on July 8, 2008

I like the iPhone a lot and as such, I’ve been following all sorts of discussions on the launch. Pretty obvious right? But one thing I don’t understand is this notion a lot of people have that phones should be free. Or at least subsidized.

Why do people think that?

I mean, I don’t go to my cable company and ask them to subsidize my computer when I buy internet service, even though a computer without internet is, in this day and age, a lot like a phone without service. Nor do I ask the 7-11 to subsidize my car, even though my car is nothing more than a heavy metal box without gasoline. So why should our phones be any different?

I was discussing the iPhone with my supervisor here, because my supervisor is 27 years old and I feel that he has a pretty good grasp on the world. I relate to him better than any other co-worker of mine, and I was pretty sure that even though, yes, we’re out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, he would be at least peripherally aware of the iPhone.

He was.

He sounded somewhat excited and thought that the whole thing sounded like a sound purchase. “It’s an iPod Touch with phone service,” he said. “All for a relatively low monthly cost. I think it’s a good deal.” Something that he understood well, though, was the idea that the iPhone was cheaper than an iPod touch, and in many respects, theoretically free. Most cell contracts here cost more than the 3,500円 per month that I pay. One of my co-workers pays around 12,000円 a month, most of that goes to the packet transmission fee for the e-mails he sends. Now, most phones in Japan are not free. Sure, there are usually 5-10 models per store that are 0円 (or sometimes, 1円), but most phones, especially the nice ones that you hear about when people run their mouth off about how “Japanese phones run circles around supercomputers,” cost anywhere from 10,000円 to 30,000円+. Yes, these phones probably are subsidized to a point, but the fact of the matter is, they still cost money.

Personally, I think the lie that is free phones, is one that the carriers have propagated in order to keep people locked into contracts by convincing them that if they don’t, the price of phones will be far and beyond what people can or are willing to pay. That may be true. Fewer people are willing to spend 80,000円 for an unsubsidized iPhone (the rumored price of such a beast, at least here in Japan) than are willing to take an iPhone home for no charge up front and pay 1,500円 or 2,300円 per month that disappears into a larger, more robust phone bill. But for some inane reason, people are willing to spend 48,800円 on a 16GB iPod Touch. Why?

Because AT&T and Co. have trained us to believe that phones become useless as soon as you disconnect them from the network, in the same way that they tried to convince us of the same thing years ago:

Bell could effectively prohibit its customers from connecting phones not made or sold by Bell companies to the system without leasing fees. For example, if a customer desired a type of phone not leased by the local Bell monopoly, one had to purchase the phone at cost, give it to the phone company, then pay a ‘re-wiring’ charge and a monthly lease fee in order to use it.

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