Wireless Convergence: A Personal Quest

My day job is running the Bluestreak product team. It’s a mix of business, art, and science. Good product people intuitively know what the market wants, then spend time building a business case to support what they intuitively understand. The best product people understand the technologies behind the scenes and the potential those technologies enable in the end product.

I try to aspire to this highest order (and am often successful). To intuitively understand what the market wants, I need user expertise. This is fine with online advertising, I live and breathe it. One area I’ve wanted to live and breathe for a long time is wireless. I really need more time in that market.

I’ve been playing it cool, waiting for my cell phone to die so I could justify upgrading and stepping into the wireless world. Recently, my cell started acting up. I could tell it was living on borrowed time. So, I started the research dance, looking into the market and spending time going through plans and hardware, trying to assess the best platform from which I could start understanding the space. I talked to every provider about available plans and spent dozens of hours researching phones.

My goal was to have a phone I could use as a PDA replacement, with a color screen and good Internet support. I’ve been feeling stuck in the 20th century. This was my opportunity to jump right to the cutting edge.

I do have time. Wireless marketing is still in its infancy. The next generation must get old enough to bring us forward. In the meantime, I’m seeking wireless convergence, the sweet spot where your cell phone takes over the role of other devices in your life. This seems like the first step toward wireless market maturity. For now, I’m enjoying the first-generation technology.

I’ll outline my experiences and tell you what my decisions were. Bear in mind this space changes fast. My choices may well be outmoded by the time you read this. I’m not endorsing any of the products or companies mentioned below. The choices I made fit my personal taste and budget, and I hope they’ll give me a look at where the mainstream will be in a year or two.

The Phone

I decided to switch to a GSM phone from TDMA (the prevalent U.S. standard). Ideally, I wanted a phone that works in both the U.S. and Europe and to make use of some of the cool GSM and GPRS features. In the end, the phone with everything I wanted is the Sony Ericsson T68i.

The T68i synchs with Outlook’s calendar and contacts, so it effectively replaces my PDA. I didn’t have to do the three-hour contact transfer dance as with every other new phone I’ve bought. It took 2 minutes to configure and 10 to transfer my contacts via infrared. With the new USB cable, it’s even faster.

The phone uses GPRS for Internet connectivity. It’s a much faster way to go online wirelessly than other methods I’ve tried. I can surf the Web, even check my email.

Bluetooth

Being a technology geek, I’ve drooled over Bluetooth’s promise for years. This was the first time I could justify its expense. For those of you who aren’t tech geeks, Bluetooth is a wireless communication standard that enables devices to connect seamlessly within 100 feet of one another.

In this case, I wanted a cordless, hands-free earpiece. I’ve had terrible luck with sets that plug into the phone. Between breaking my phone’s speaker jack (the primary reason my last phone died) and tangling the cable around the stick shift while driving, I felt this was needed.

I did my research and decided on the JABRA FreeSpeak. It’s one of the coolest, best things I’ve bought in a while. Comfortable, looks like something out of Star Trek, crystal clear, and great talk and standby times. It only took a few minutes to figure out and start using.

I’m playing around with other ways I can use Bluetooth with this phone. If you have ideas, please let me know.

Small and Cool

I wanted a very cool phone with a decent-sized color screen and some “wow” factor. But it was far more important the phone be small.

My last phone was a near-perfect product (and I say that as a product person), the Nokia 8260. It was small enough to fit in my front left pocket and had all the features I wanted at the time. I loved how small it was, but it was getting old and didn’t meet my needs of being on the cutting edge. I couldn’t use it to sense the future of the market. Turns out the T68i is almost exactly the same size. It even looks much like the other phone. This can’t be accidental.

There are features I haven’t yet had time to explore, such as voice-activated calling. You can set up a voice command for your contacts and simply speak their names to call them. Sounds frivolous until you use the Bluetooth hands-free kit and start leaving the phone in your pocket when you call.

Negatives? Well, the color screen isn’t the best on the market, and the ring tones are not polyphonic (which permits real music as a ring tone). But it’s a great phone. It’s been on the market long enough I’m confident Sony Ericsson worked the kinks out.

The Service Plan

GSM is growing quickly. Most experts believe the U.S. will make the switch to GSM (the standard across most of the world) in the next few years.

I researched AT&T, Cingular, Nextel, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Given I wanted GSM compatibility and knew which phone I wanted, it was easy to narrow the competitors down to AT&T and T-Mobile. Frankly, I didn’t take T-Mobile very seriously in the beginning.

At publishing time, AT&T Wireless wasn’t price competitive. This was annoying, as I was highly motivated to keep my current phone number, and I had been happy with the company’s service in the past. New legislation obliging mobile companies to let you “own” your phone number doesn’t go into effect until November. I thought with my having been a subscriber for five years, AT&T Wireless would have customer retention rewards, but the sales rep couldn’t do anything for me. I also was disappointed with AT&T’s GSM network coverage in my local market — although friends had told me that the connectivity was improving rapidly.

T-Mobile’s plan was the cheapest out there when I was looking. Its Internet connection plans are cheap and easy to understand, the GSM coverage map was comprehensive, there are customer retention plans (I asked), and free mobile-to-mobile minutes with other T-Mobile customers. Perhaps most imporant to me was the ability to easily use my phone in Europe, which T-Mobile has done a great job of making simple.

So, I made my choice and went with T-Mobile. I got the phone I wanted, a plan that made me happy, and a pretty good number. I’m ready to start diving into the wireless world and go a little James Bond with all the new gadgets on my belt.

Call me Agent 0114 (my new number).

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