I’ve just arrived in Oslo, Norway, and I’m waiting for a friend to pick me up
at the airport. As he rolls up in his efficient Peugeot hatchback, I can see by
the wrinkles in his forehead and by the smile on his face that he’s laughing at
me. “I just tried to call your cell phone and realized it doesn’t work here,” he
says between chuckles, as he takes my bag. “Why is the U.S. always so stupid
about things like that?”
As a 15year veteran of the telecom industry, he knows the answer perfectly
The rest of the world’s adoption of the GSM standard has made it easy to spread
the technology even to the planet’s most remote corners. It has allowed for
seamless subscriber roaming across Europe, Africa and Asia. But here in the
States, we’re trapped on an introverted island. All but those of us willing to
pay handsomely for global service are cut off. Some of us have GSM handsets, but
to use them in other parts of the world we’d still need a new subscription or a
prepaid SIM card.
Because I want global capability, and want to avoid chastisement from friends
who drive Peugeots, I figure I need a GSM handset I can stick a prepaid SIM chip
into. Cingular uses the GSM standard, and is the exclusive provider of the
iPhone, so it occurred to me that it would be the coolest GSMcapable handset I
could get. Since I had considered switching to Cingular anyway (Verizon Wireless
doesn’t offer rollover minutes for some reason), it seemed like a swanky
upgrade—and freedom from Scandinavian ridicule—was in my proximate future.
My excitement at the prospect of owning one of these heralded new devices was
outweighed only by my disappointment as reality quickly disillusioned me.
Obtaining an iPhone would mean paying premiums for every basic service and
selling my eternal soul to Cingular Wireless. Too late: it’s already been
offered to Baal in exchange for a Knicks championship.
Calls to colleagues who are experts in mobile tariffs and bundles confirmed that
iPhone services, especially global ones, were prohibitively expensive—even by
the standards of the successful, jetsetting business developer. Obtaining an
iPhone through Cingular was not a viable option for me. So I sat down to think
of some way, some contact I had, some scheme for abusing my media credentials,
that would allow me to get my hands on one of these devices.
There are dozens of blogs relating to the iPhone, many of which talk about how
to find software that will allow users to “unlock” their handsets. These
hackers, from the States and all over Europe, think they’re rebels. In the end,
though, they’re still buying handsets and services from Apple and operators like
Cingular, and then proceeding to use those devices in ways that likely go
companies like Apple and Cingular sit up and realize that an open services
approach is what people really want is not to buy iPhones from them.
The real answer may be the one I found on the cover of the September issue of
Popular Science: the iClone. Meizu, a Chinese manufacturer that successfully
cloned Apple’s iPod Nano last year, is scheduled to debut its iPhone clone
sometime this fall. Chinese manufacturers have excelled at making knockoff
versions of simple products for years, but technology cloning has become a major
industry in China for everything from handsets to automobiles. The clones are
reportedly of very high quality and are often indistinguishable from or even
superior to the originals.
The iClone, as it’s being called, is itself a bit of a mystery. The PopSci
writer who flew to China to see it was denied the opportunity at the last
minute, but gave the distinct impression that demand for this device is growing
faster than perhaps Meizu anticipated. Reports suggest that this handset is at
least the equal of the iPhone, and may even be superior in its ability to
interact with various types of networks, utilize various applications, and
support languages from around the globe.
Whether it is better than the iPhone or not, the iClone represents the fact that
no matter how hard they try, telecom operators cannot restrain how people will
use Internet technology. Limiting what someone can do with a doall device like
an iPhone doesn’t make sense. Mobile operators need to recognize that users with
service freedom will devise ways to create revenue that their own marketing
groups will never imagine.
Without that freedom, users always turn to alternate sources, including grey and
black markets, to find the devices, capabilities or content they want. What they
want now is what the iPhone offers but isn’t delivering: an open communications
and digital entertainment experience. Meizu doesn’t care how people decide to
use their clones, which is why so many people—like me—want them instead of the
When I finally get my iClone, I’m heading back to Norway. I want to show my
Scandinavian friends just how stupid the United States really is.