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.

Cory Doctorow, Contributor

September 21, 2007

6 Min Read

The triumvirate of phone manufacturers, mobile carriers, and entertainment companies are the world's reigning champions at shifting blame and pointing fingers. Ask Apple why it won't let you use any song in your iTunes library as an iPhone ringtone and it will tell you it's the fault of the greedy record companies.

The music industry is supposedly so addicted to the vanishing ringtone market that it won't let Apple get away with letting you use the music you own in new ways without paying a ringtone tax (and some of them won't let you use your music this way at all).

Likewise, ask Apple why the iPhone comes locked and it will tell you that AT&T insisted on this as the only way that it would offer Apple handsets. AT&T will tell you that locked handsets and vicious, one-sided term contracts are the only way to recoup the upfront cost of offering subsidized handsets to customers (what, they never heard of the installment plan?).

When Nokia announced that its first 4GB handset was going to be delayed by a month because it was adding Windows DRM (reducing functionality and increasing cost), it blamed it on the carriers, who were facing threats from the record industry -- who could pull ringtones licenses from the carriers and deprive them of the revenue.

And so on and so on. Every time we butt up against some rotten "feature" in the mobile phone world -- screwy data-pricing (the launch of the iPhone was followed by a spate of stories about multi-thousand-dollar phone bills that were delivered by forklift), carrier-locked handsets, handsets that can't run user-installed software, APIs that can't talk to the phone's radio hardware, batteries tied to handsets by cryptographic protocols intended to stop you from buying cheap generic replacements, phones that won't play your own music or movies, phones whose numbers can't be ported to another carrier, phones where number portability takes weeks or months, "unlimited" data-plans that cut you off if you use too much data -- everyone's got someone else to blame. It's the greedy, stupid, dinosauric carriers. It's the wimpy, gutless phone manufacturers. It's the coked-up Hollyweird fat cats from the record industry.

It starts to feel like a Mexican standoff, three tough guys, each pointing a gun at the others' heads, deadlocked and unwilling to risk anything to break the standoff. These kinds of hostage situations make for gripping cinematic moments, but only when we care about one or more of the hostages.

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.

I have a feeling that the best way to slay this hellspawn is by virtualizing the SIM card -- that little removable chip that tells your phone what its number is when it connects to the network. These plastic gewgaws can be bought prepaid, with airtime, SMS messages, and other valuable services. The problem is that large groups of users can't join forces and buy dozens of SIM cards, sharing them depending on who has the best deal. Imagine that you want to find a Wi-Fi hotspot to make a VoIP call with your suitably equipped handset -- you could tell your phone to use "your" SIM to authenticate to the network and send an SMS to a server that can give your phone a password for a nearby hotspot, then "loan" you another SIM to log in to a wireless phone service that includes a cheaper voice-rate that you can use on the way.

All these SIMs register and unregister your phone number of the moment with a free PBX, like the awesomely full-featured and robust Asterisk, so that your calls always reach you, and they'd spoof the outgoing number so that your calls would be returned to the correct number. This is similar to the way that a home NAT router shares a single IP address among many computers, keeping track of who gets packets for which session when with a little lookup table in its guts.

The best thing about this plan is that by buying giant blocks of prepaid airtime and service, you're hitting the carriers where it hurts, by using the services enjoyed by their best, most profitable customers. Every countermeasure they take against your service is an impediment to their bread-and-butter types. Those great customers form a human shield for your surgical strike on the carriers.

Maybe it won't work -- but what's the worst thing that could happen? You'd end up with a competitor to the telcos that de-fubared their business-practices, a geek carrier that treated us all like customers, not hostages.

Cory Doctorow is co-author of the Boing Boing blog, as well as a journalist, Internet activist, and science fiction writer. Read his previous InformationWeek columns.

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