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Legitimizing Creeping Feature-itis

Do mobile devices have too many features? I think the answer is yes, and the trend is driving up prices. But if wireless operators have their way, that's the way it'll be from now on.
Do mobile devices have too many features? I think the answer is increasingly yes, and the trend is driving up prices. But if wireless operators have their way, that's the way it'll be from now on.

This is strictly an issue of market dynamics, as I see it. For the last several years, wireless operators have suffered declining revenues from voice services. That trend will accelerate as wireless voice-over-IP continues to emerge.

As a result, the wireless operators are trying to wring as much revenue as they can out of data services, ranging from downloaded ringtones to 3G Internet access. All the new capabilities being built into phones, such as cameras, music players and, soon, TV receivers, are simply an attempt by cellular operators to leverage users to buy more cellular data services.

Of course, the phone vendors love this trend because it encourages users, particularly consumers, to buy new phones. In other words, we're in the midst of an era of creeping feature-it is and the wireless operators and phone vendors are working overtime to legitimize this trend.

True, this creeping feature-itis is leading to fascinating devices that can communicate via Bluetooth and cellular and Wi-Fi networks and can play music and video, display photographs and pinpoint your location within a few centimeters. But such devices are big and expensive and most of us don't want or need all those features. Plus, as I've complained many times, the wireless operators are charging so much for cellular data service that few individuals and enterprise users will acquire these services.

The vibe from the carriers is that they think they have the leverage to make all these capabilities -- and the price we'll have to pay for them -- standard. But the carriers are about to face serious competition: The first pre-standard mobile WiMAX equipment will be released within the year. If the cellular operators persist in their strong-arm approach, they'll see a massive out-migration to wireless ISPs.

Until they feel the pain, though, I expect the cellular operators to keep the pressure up. So expect to see ever-more fascinating devices that few people will actually buy. And expect to see serious competition for your mobile communication dollars start to heat up in a year.

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