Why Google’s Phone First, Carrier Second Model Should Be the Standard

Earlier today, Google announced that it was jumping back into the phone sales game and began offering the HSPA+ Unlocked Galaxy Nexus for sale on the Google Play store. It is compatible with GSM networks like T-Mobile and AT&T, and will cost you $399.00. For an unsubsidized phone, I would think that this would be a steal, considering Verizon lists the LTE Galaxy Nexus with a retail value of $750.

Google has done this before, of course, way back when it released the original Nexus phone, the Nexus One. Google’s master plan was to free the consumer from the hold that mobile network carriers have had on the market for years and years. Consumers would pick the phone they want first, and then pick the carrier they want to buddy up with.

Assuming phone manufacturers were up to building variants tailored to the different networks, this would enable more freedom, more choice, and more competition in the mobile market. It really can’t be all to difficult for phone manufacturers to do this these days, seeing as mobile chipsets are beginning to cram in support for a wider variety of wireless frequencies, so in retrospect not too many variants would actually be necessary (and in most cases, it would should probably be a software change).

So what’s so bad about carriers ruling the roost? Here are a few odd ideas:

  • Contracts – The evil of these things is something I cannot even begin to describe. Carriers will rope you in for two years with a phone that lasts one and a half (given that you are using it regularly, like most folks), at which point you will be suckered into a contract renewal for another two years. Consumers believe they are getting phones for free or for very, very cheap prices, but in reality that cost is simply subsidized, paid for by the gobs you’re paying into your contract with the carrier. Phones are little computers, and computers are typically big purchases, which means you should never be flabbergasted by the $600+ price tag on most phones and instead save up to pay for them like you would any computer (or other big purchase). The ability to buy a phone and then proceed to sign on with a carrier under a contract-less, prepaid plan would bring a huge relief to many consumers today.
  • Competition – When you’re roped into a contract with a carrier, it couldn’t care less about the service it offers you. If you threaten to leave the carrier and cancel your contract, it simply forces you to pay the early termination fee, which usually covers the cost of your expensive smartphone (on top of the bill you also have to pay for that month). This means that once you are in its ranks, you are trapped. It has no incentive, then, to work to improve its service. Rather, it does as little work as possible to maintain its current level of quality (if that).
  • Quality of Service – Similar to the previous point, carriers being at the top of the food chain introduces quality concerns. More often than not, when a carrier advertises, it is advertising the phones it offers with a little mention of its network’s service off to the side. Most carriers also devote a large portion of their resources working to provide a host of devices to rope consumers into contracts as well as promote and support those devices. If consumers instead bought their phones first, then decided on a carrier, those carriers would then be able to devote all of their time and resources on improving their networks as well as supporting their customers.

So in essence, putting the phones first and the carriers second (or at least, putting the carriers at an equal level to the phones) would ensure that the consumer’s choice is protected and that both the devices he or she chooses in addition to the service he or she selects are able to develop and improve independently. It would truly be a win-win scenario for everyone. I hope that Google continues to push this model. We can hope that it will be successful, and phone manufacturers and carriers alike can follow suit.