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9/21/2007
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The Solution To Mobile Phone Deadlock? Somebody Has To Die

Every time we butt up against some rotten problem in the mobile phone world, everyone's got someone else to blame. The solution: Kill somebody (metaphorically). Columnist Cory Doctorow shows us how.

But if there's no one on the screen that we particularly like, there's an easy narrative solution to the problem: shoot one or more of the hostages. The equilibrium falls apart, and so does the deadlock.

I don't much care which one we kill off. A manufacturer who has so little respect for my business that he locks my handset gets no love from me -- no more than would a restauranteur who bars the door until I agree to eat there for the next year. The record industry lost me about 20,000 lawsuits ago -- they can go hang, as far as I'm concerned. And, of course, no human language contains the phrase "as lovable as a phone company," and I'd dance on the grave of pretty much any major carrier.

So, if you wanted to cut the head off these industries, sew garlic into their mouths, and bury their ashes at a crossroad, how would you do so?

Phone manufacturers: this is pretty straightforward. With the exception of the iPhone, your average mobile phone has a user-interface that combines the charm of a DOS prompt with the consistency of a MySpace page -- and has a physical chassis to match. And yet, these ridiculous bricks continue to sell. The way to kill off the phone manufacturers is to clone their products -- just clone the salient features and appearance of the latest Nokia candy-bar, Motorola VOWLR, or CrackBerry and have them manufactured in the factory next door to the real one in Shenzen or Guanjhou. Invest all your money in an advertising campaign that goes, "Buy our phones on the installment plan and you can get an unlocked handset that does everything you want -- and you don't need to sell your soul to a carrier to get that 'free' phone that comes with a standard two-year/first-born-child contract."

The record companies are easy to kill. They're doing the job for us -- give it a couple years and they'll have alienated so many music lovers, musicians, retail channels, lawmakers, parents, and educators that a torch-bearing mob will do the job for you.

Killing the carriers is the real challenge. Trustbusters and competing industries have been trying to drive a stake through the telcos' hearts for decades now, without much success. It must be the combination of running on government-protected monopolies (spectrum, rights-of-way) and being "mature" enough that all the nominal competitors in the industry can show up on the Hill and present a united front when pleading for more special favors.

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