Gobs on Sticks

Thoughts mostly (but not always) about the voice-over business, from London Voiceover Artist, Mike Cooper

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    My name is Mike Cooper. I'm a full time Voiceover Artist living and working in London, and this is my blog. Find out more about me on my main website (there's a link further down this column), or if you'd like to hear some of my work, check out the files below.
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Ode to o2 (an off-topic attempt at some balanced thoughts on the new iPhone)

Posted by MikeCooper on June 9, 2009

Before I say anything else, let me nail my colours firmly to the mast and say I love my iPhone. I’m a convert: a good friend gave me his first-generation model on the day the iPhone 3G came out, and I promptly hacked it to work with my Vodafone SIM card. Within two weeks I was so hooked that I bought myself out of my Vodafone contract and joined the happy 3G throng. This wasn’t a cheap exercise, but I called it a Business Expense and haven’t looked back.

Yesterday, Apple spoke to geeks worldwide and announced the new iPhone 3G S (the “S” presumably standing for “Sexier-than-your-current-iPhone, Suckers!”). Harder, better, faster, stronger, and all that. The new model has an improved camera, more memory options, a faster processor and a couple of other bells and whistles, much like any next-generation mobile phone from any manufacturer would have over any of their preceding models. None of it’s Earth-shattering stuff (a compass and a 3 megapixel camera aren’t exactly going to set the world on fire, let’s face it), but in the less-than-twenty-four hours since the announcement, and since the publication of price plans on the o2 UK website, iPhone users here in Britain have been throwing their hands up in despair at the pricing, the cost of upgrading, the cost of using “tethering” (connecting your phone to your computer for mobile data), and so on. Twitter has been ablaze with incensed posts about how o2 is ripping us off, and I’m not sure that the official o2 Tweeter (@o2) was ready for the onslaught. Already a petition has gone up to demand that o2 be more “reasonable”. There are bits of this that I sympathise with, but a lot that I don’t get, so this post is my attempt at gaining some clarity.

Right then, let’s try and gain some perspective…

Firstly, the iPhone is, in the words of Monty Python, “not the Messiah”. No question, it’s a very, very, cool bit of kit and it’s allowed me to connect to the rest of the world in ways I’ve never been able to do before – certainly not with any of Nokia’s or Sony Ericsson’s models (my N95 8GB, for example, crashed every time I tried to open Gmail). But at the end of the day the iPhone, in any of its incarnations, is no more than a cross between a mobile phone and a low-end laptop computer (yes, I’m dodging lightning bolts as I write).

Secondly, it’s normal here in the UK for any mobile operator to subsidise the cost of a handset, lowering the cost to the customer as a result. If you’re prepared to hold onto the phone for the contract term, you “win”; if you decide you need the latest phone sooner then you “lose” by having to pay a fee to upgrade. This is absolutely normal. Last year o2 did a Very Unusual Thing by allowing owners of the first-generation, 2G iPhone to upgrade without penalty. This set a precedent, and was probably all about addressing the very evident shortcomings of the original model whilst keeping the hype machine rolling, but I don’t see how they could do that every time a new model is announced, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect it. You signed a contract saying you’d keep the phone for 18 months, or (foolishly, in my opinion) 2 years when you took out the contract. Don’t sign the contract if you’re not prepared to keep to it. And why should iPhone users get to switch phones whenever they like, while o2’s other contract users with other phones can’t?

Next week sees the release of iPhone software 3.0 (or “iPhone three-oh”, as the Apple geeks insisted on calling it). This will bring most of the functionality of the new phone to the existing iPhone 3G, including the much-lamented ability to send picture messages (for the price of four SMS messages a throw, included in your price plan, no questions, no fanfare). What’s more, iPhone 3.0 is a free upgrade! Who else would do this? Microsoft?!? Sure, it won’t turn the existing camera into a video camera, and it won’t make the processor any faster, but then my digital camera has several megapixels fewer than the current models, and my iMac (now nearly two years old) is a bit slower than the models on sale now. They both more than adequate, and if someone offered to upgrade the software on either free of charge I’d be as happy as a pig in shit (conversely, “Snow Leopard“, the next version of Mac OS X will probably cost me about £25 at release later in the summer). The thing is, if I really wanted, or felt I needed, a better version of any of my existing electronic trinkets, I wouldn’t expect anyone to subsidise my greed for a newer model. So pay up, or shut up.

Thirdly, and this is where I beg to differ with o2’s approach, they’ve decided to charge for “tethering” your iPhone to your computer for data. This, to my mind, seems to go against the spirit of the “use as much data as you like, within reason” philosophy. I’d argue that anyone who wants to use it as their primary modem and who expects to get through massive amounts of data should pay accordingly, but it seems churlish not to include what they’d let you use through your iPhone anyway, whether it’s terminating at the phone or on a tethered machine. When challenged on this, the beleaguered o2 Twitter-Monkey responded by saying “iPhone tethering costs more as it uses a lot more data than traditional browsing on your iPhone itself”. Really? Surely if the processing overhead is that great then there’s something wrong with the code, no? And if that’s the case, does that mean that anyone paying £15 for 3MB will really get 3MB? o2’s costings at launch for iPhone tethering are either £14.68 or £29.36 per month (nice round figures, presumably thanks to the current 15% VAT levels), with a minimum one month term “so you can turn it on and off when you like” (yeah, thanks). But a quick scout around quickly reveals that this doesn’t compare favourably with USB internet dongles for laptops from the other carriers, who I’m sure will seize on the opportunity to undercut that o2 has just handed them.

All that said, is tethering really that great an option anyway? You can use it over USB or via Bluetooth, but the latter is likely to drain your iPhone battery even faster than normal, and using your mobile as a data modem with a USB cable is all a bit 2004 for my liking anyway. Plus, calls interrupt data access – or at least they have up to now. Add into the mélange the fact that o2’s 3G coverage is woeful, even in Central London, and it ceases to be that much of a deal-breaker for me. (Don’t get me started on roaming onto BT Openzone hotspots: they’ve never worked properly for me and are the subject of ongoing correspondence with the office of the CEO, Matthew Key.)

Finally, there’s the subject of cost compared to the prices in the US, and on this matter I’m not so conciliatory. In the US, the 32GB iPhone 3G S will cost $299, with the 16GB version at $199. So why are the UK versions £274.23 and £184.98 then? I know times is ‘ard and all that, but did the Pound just take an almighty whack against the Dollar when no one was looking? I think not. I’m tired of getting ripped off in Britain for stuff that’s priced lower elsewhere, and on that point, I really do feel something should be done. o2 aren’t alone in this, but with such a high-profile item, it would have been a perfect time to set a good example.

So, is this really as much of an “#o2fail” as the Twitterers are claiming? I’m not so sure. It’s rare to get something for nothing, and I’m old enough and wise enough to have reached a point where I don’t expect it. For now, I’ll take the “iPhone three-oh” software and congratulate myself on having beaten the system (kind of). At least in the UK we’ll get MMS at launch, included in our iPhone tariffs, which is more than can be said for our friends on AT&T.


3 Responses to “Ode to o2 (an off-topic attempt at some balanced thoughts on the new iPhone)”

  1. Alex Dixon said

    I do agree. iPhone users get the free update and the 3G model was subsidised to make it cheaper.

    However, I’ve worked out that it’s going to cost me £800 over the 18 month period to buy the iPhone 3G S (32GB) and pay the contract. I’ve never had to pay a contract before, I’m 17 years old, but why would they charge £15 extra for tethering?!

    I carry my Macbook around college, and it would be nice to maybe browse the web out on a field somewhere – But come on! Do they expect me to go outside and download torrents and TV shows from BBC iPlayer? All I’m going to do is check a forum or two, look at my new emails and tweet. That’s definitely not worth the extra £15.

    If people are going to use this as a primary modem, they should be expected to pay. However – I won’t be caught out by this con, and I hope the #o2fail protests don’t go unheard and something is done about the bloody tethering.

    Nice article. No flaming from me 🙂

  2. benrobertsabq said

    As far as tethering goes, depending who and where you are it has some real advantages. For example being able to check in with the office from your laptop and do a little work while on holiday in a place that has cellphone coverage but no nearby internet connection or hotspots. Tethering would have been really useful for me.

    What’s really funny is at present in the US that AT&T doesn’t allow tethering at all. Not for any price. Which seems strange considering they *do* offer data plans with cellular modems for your laptop, so providing an option for an additional high-use data plan for the tether doesn’t seem like a big deal.

  3. TJ6106 said

    Can’t agree more with what you wrote.
    The tether does seem a bit off as we do already have unlimited data (“Fair Usage”) so why can’t we use part of that for a quick email check at the office etc? Also announcing that with the £x a month extra you get access to wi-fi, thought we already got that with the standard monthly contract, no?

    I am just looking forward to 3.0 next week! 😀

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