June 09, 2009

AT&T Has Us Approach Intersection of Doing "Right", Common Sense

For the most part, I believe people are good and try to honor the law. Most people, regardless of religion or upbringing, believe it is wrong to lie, to steal or to cheat. But sometimes, there comes a perceived imbalance that drives a mob of people to collectively break the law and flaunt the rules, until the teeming anarchy threatens to break down the system, save it for a clear thinking authority figure who steps in and offers an acceptable alternative. We saw this with the boom of Napster and again with the rise of peer to peer networks for video trading. We saw it two years ago when users gloriously jailbroke their iPhones to install much-desired apps, and we are possibly seeing it again now that it looks like many existing iPhone 3G owners, shackled to AT&T for their service, are going to be unable to perform tasks possible from other carriers.

Going back to the root of the first two examples, with Peer to Peer networks and Napster, why were people sharing files and downloading like mad? For many people, it wasn't a matter of wanting to steal from the record companies, or to defraud artists. From the many stories I read and the people I talked to in that era, the most active Napster users were also among the ones with the largest legitimate music collections, the ones who made visiting a record store or concert a regular occurrence. But there came an imbalance between the ease of acquisition and the price of acquisition of the media, as prices for individual CDs rose from the $9.99 range to $13, $15, $18 and beyond.

Napster, Kazaa and other peer to peer networks, offered an alternative that delivered music of all types quickly, depending on download speeds, and for extremely low cost (free). And instead of downloading full albums, users could find individual tracks and get those alone.

It took a realistic alternative, like iTunes, that offered low per-track pricing and easy, trusted, downloads to push people to move away from illegal options, and for the most part, they have. Similarly, options like Netflix, Amazon Unbox and iTunes again provided users with trusted inexpensive video downloads that were less costly than the rapidly-rising theater experience, with its $10+ tickets (not to mention inability to pause the film).

In each case, consumers, with common sense, grew tired of the restrictions placed on them from an uncaring monopolistic industry. And while the traditional entertainment and media moguls are still reeling from having to adjust to the new rules placed on them by consumers, other old world giants think they can play the game and be a gatekeeper. AT&T's woes were painfully shown by Apple yesterday, who quietly called out the carrier for being behind in practically every important way - not enabling tethering for the iPhone, being incapable of supporting MMS, and giving all of us early adopters a dramatic case of sticker shock when we considered upgrading.

The world of common sense again says that if customers want to pay for cutting edge technology and are willing to pay for your services, they will. But they don't like being forced into a less than ideal situation that makes them feel like they are paying top dollar and getting lowest rung support.

I haven't slammed AT&T much and haven't championed them either. Phone services, like electricity and water, are a utility - something that should just work in the background. The fact that we are even talking about them now means something has failed. It's a relatively quiet group of folks, so far, who feel wronged by the phone monolith's position, but if the failures continue, they will start to break the rules, because common sense says they should, and eventually, the wrong will be right.

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