My real estate colleagues are relieved. My fellow MVIS shareholders acknowledge a capitulation. I’m waiting for the first two bills to see how big a change it really is to go from a flip phone on Sprint’s network to a smartphone on AT&T’s network. Oh for the simplicity of a phone wired to the wall and the world via a network managed by a monopoly.
I buy tools, not gadgets. I bought my first cell phone in about 1999 or 2000 because I was about to attempt a solo bicycle ride across America. It was a little pricey, but I was a millionaire at the time. Besides, a phone that combined the hardware and software to communicate via three kinds of analog and digital networks was necessary to work in every state. It would be handy for calling home, but its primary purpose was to call 911. The roads aren’t always friendly, or so goes the worry. It was an era when email existed, but public access was uncommon. Wi-fi and texting were even less common. The calls were expensive, but being able to connect was comforting. In eleven weeks of riding I never needed to phone in an emergency. It served its purpose.
A few years later, I continued to carry it around, but didn’t use it much. Most calls could wait until I was home. Few things needed immediate attention. Having a cell phone in my pocket was convenient. I knew cell phones were becoming ubiquitous when AAA assumed I was calling from one. The real test came on a hike near the Canadian border. That story is a long one. A full telling takes about 45 minutes, and I’ve been asked to repeat it because it involved sleeping with a dead body during a night so cold that my backpack stove froze on an arid summit with no water or protection. Maybe I’ll tell it some other time. I was the only person alive and on the mountain to guard the body, and to call in the recovery helicopter. Nothing gory, but there’s intrigue, mystery, and international implications. Depending on which side of the mountain I stood on, the phone would switch from power-hungry analog mode to a sketchy digital mode. At dawn, the battery only had enough power to pull in one erroneous text message, possibly the first I ever received. The best communication device that day was me waving my big orange guide jacket as I tried and succeeded at getting the helicopter’s attention. After that, dialing 911 anywhere became one of my key criteria for any cell phone.
Move forward a few years, and I moved from the mainland to Whidbey Island, a place notorious for coverage holes caused by folds in the Earth as well as remoteness of towers. I switched from Verizon to Nextel, which meant switching phones. At least Nextel’s phones had an energy-saving call-to-talk function. I never had to use it, and also had no reason to replace it. That was true until years later when Nextel sent me a letter telling me that they were removing the hardware from the towers that would talk to my phone. I could keep the phone, but it wouldn’t work. Evidently, I hold onto equipment longer than most. Why throw away something that works?
Somewhere in there I started watching my early-adopter friends proudly playing with their iPhones. Cool, but I didn’t have a need, so I didn’t make a change.
Nextel was bought or merged with Sprint, which meant yet another change not required by me. The company had other plans, evidently. As years progressed, the service degraded. I could hold the phone in my hand, waiting for a call, then getting a note that I had a new voicemail. A call would come in, but not ring; even though the voicemail notification would arrive. It was embarrassing. Recently, the service was so poor that sometimes I gave up after trying ten times to connect a call. It was a common occurrence. As a consultant, writer, museum manager, and general member of the Gig Economy, it wasn’t an issue. Email ruled.
Two years ago, the pressure to change multiplied. I started on the path to becoming a real estate broker. Carrying a flip phone that could barely make a call or receive a text was a hindrance and a source of jokes. Some brokers solely survive on text messages, it seems. At least I got some good stories out of my old phone. And yet, I didn’t get a smartphone because I knew something better was coming.
There are Early-Adopters, the people who buy gadgets as soon as possible, almost as a sport. The general population comes later, and is responsible for the majority of sales. There’s a third wave of consumers that only change when they must, but then they do so from obvious benefit, not just from peer pressure or ad campaigns.
From about the time I bought that first cell phone, I’ve been invested in a company mentioned frequently in this blog: MicroVision (NASDAQ: MVIS). For twenty years they’ve been teasing their version of The Next Big Thing: a cell phone with an embedded projector. Why stare at a tiny screen when you can create whatever display size you want? Why limit yourself? First, the idea was direct retinal display. Beam the image directly onto the retina and the image is daylight readable, completely private, and uses hardly any power. That idea evolved into an embedded projector that beamed the display on any surface in a way that couldn’t be out of focus. No need to hand the phone around to show a photo. Point it at the wall, the floor, or someone’s shirt and everyone can see it at the same time. As a bonus, it became possible to interact with the display as if it was an enormous tablet. With a potential like that, and investment like that, I delayed and delayed and delayed as I waited for a cell phone, now called a mobile phone, now called a smartphone with that capability.
Finally, just after getting my real estate license, it happened a variety of smartphones became available with always-in-focus, HD displays, that at close range were very bright and in darker rooms could be very large. I almost bought one. They weren’t readily available in the US because the US market is no longer the main target. China, India, Brazil, Europe were leading the way. Can’t blame the companies. Go to where the money is. There’s money in the US, but there are larger middle classes elsewhere. When my preferred one dropped support for the US, and when MicroVision managed yet another delay and shift in strategy, I gave in.
A week ago I visited an AT&T store in Oak Harbor, at the other end of the island. Because of my business it was important that I kept my phone number, so I wanted to make sure we transferred things right. It took two hours. It actually began with a visit months ago when I investigated getting first one of those projector phones and then one of the regular smartphones. There was so much to learn that it took me months to return with my decision.
The $179 phone from earlier was gone, but there was a special deal for a $1/month phone for people switching service. Nice! Within the next two hours, that offer somehow vanished, and I left with a phone that may only cost me $104. OK, $179-$104 is still $75 less than I expected. The service was quoted at $80/month. That’s higher than my Sprint flip phone, but I recognized the upgrade, as well as the value of reliable service. All acceptable, with the bonus that I walked out of the store with a new phone and the transfer complete.
Then I got home. Instead of $80/month, the paperwork estimated next month’s bill to be over $300, and every subsequent bill to be over $200. What?! It was too late to call them back, so I waited a day.
The next morning, before I called the store, I decided to call AT&T’s Customer Service. I’ve heard horror stories, but decided to talk to ‘corporate’. Whew. They said the next month’s bill was more like $200, and the subsequent bills would be $104. Then, the representative suggested I talk to someone else, usually not a good sign. I was wrong again. The next person listened to how I wanted to use it – as a phone that happened to have some other functions. Their next remark was something like; “Oh, they signed you up for way more stuff than you’ll ever need. I’m sure we can knock that down by $20. Let me put you on hold.” Going on hold to save $240 a year? Sure. Back on the line, the reduction was more like $35. $104-$35=$69. There will be taxes and such, but that’s a great relief from hundreds of dollars per month and thousands per year.
The story continues. I’m getting to ask my friends sheepish questions about how to make a call, answer the phone, track down voicemail, and find those pesky text messages. I’ll dive into emails and apps after I’ve figured out dial tones. The more important part of the story will wait a month or two. Until I receive the next two bills I won’t know for sure what I’m paying. At one extreme, I might have to do an emergency switch to some simpler service if the high-end bills happen. At the other extreme, the improved service may connect me with clients as we successfully complete transactions – all while barely increasing my monthly bills.
I don’t know which way it will go. That’s life. But going to an AT&T store conjured the contrast with the simplicity I recall against the complexity I’m witnessing. Stay tuned.