Lunch was late today, and in close proximity to a couple of cellphone purveyors. Having satisfied myself on tacos and Coke Zero (note to the young man at Chipotle: the taco does not traditionally contain beans nor rice of any variety), I decided to step into the AT&T store and see for myself what the Moto X is about.
First caveat: I know damn well that the phones will all have those bulky alarm tethers on the back, making it impossible to get a good sense of hand-feel. Second caveat: I know that the primary party pieces of the Moto X are voice control and its battery life, neither of which will be possible to test in a retail environment. So with that in mind, I activated my personal psychic cloaking shield, made a saving throw vs. retail solicitation, and marched in to see what’s doing.
From what I can tell, here’s the story on the X: the gesture-based camera activation works right up until it pulls the alarm tether out of the base. So much for cloaking. The screen looks just fine, certainly no worse than the plethora of other phones stacked up alongside. It doesn’t feel unseemly big on the x-y axes either. The woven back is a visual texture but not tactile. Taps and swipes seem quick and responsive and natural.
More troubling is that there were two (2) devices in the store. One by itself amid a sea of HTC and Samsungs (including the risible Galaxy Mega – is anyone really going to buy a 6-inch phone?) and one on the side of a display that included samples of the customizable colors. White and black fronts, all the color accents and all sixteen color options for the back. Most of which look like they could be really dated really quick – the resale value of your Miami Dolphins-colored phone is not going to be great. But then, this is a smartphone for people who may not necessarily be upgrading every two years, for better or worse. The crimson option would be nice for Tide fans. I kind of wish the navy was darker, but pair it with a white front and the metallic yellow and any Cal fan would be satisfied.
But that’s the thing: this is Moto’s hero phone, its cross-carrier flagship device. And it has less presence in this AT&T company store than you would expect. Were it not for the customization console (which is not active, apparently), there would be nothing to promote this phone any harder than the free-with-contract Pantechs on the next counter over. Maybe the big marketing push will come when the phone becomes available on all four national carriers, who knows. But Motorola was allegedly preparing to spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars on promoting the Moto X – and right now, the budget for in-store promotion looks like about $3.50.
So on the way back to the car, I stepped into T-Mobile to enquire about the prepaid options for a notional unlocked iPhone 4S. Not the contract-free options, mind you – the legit prepaid stuff, the sort of thing you’d have in the UK. Add dollars, etc. And right now, from that standpoint, the only real plan is a pay-by-the-day offering. It’ll cost you $3 a day, but that comes with unlimited calls and texts plus 200 MB of data at full speed (LTE where available, HSPA+ otherwise). That works out to $90 a month for unlimited calling and messaging plus an aggregate 6 GB of data.
Which might sound outrageous, until you look at a 2-year contract with AT&T through my employer and see that unlimited calling and messaging plus 5 GB of data per month will cost you $110 a month after the discount. Verizon’s “Share Everything” seems somewhat more reasonable – $80 will get you the same unlimited everything plus 6 GB data – until you factor in the $40 for “Monthly Line Access.” So you end up with $120 a month, essentially the same as the un-discounted AT&T plan. And then throw in all the usual taxes, fees, assessments, blah blah blah…
Basically, as long as the network is sufficient, you can undercut AT&T and Verizon by 25% without any commitment at all beyond paying every morning when you turn on the phone. If you were some random European popping over for a week – let’s say one of those British cabbies who always told us they were going to Vegas or San Francisco soon – seven days of service will only set you back £14 or so, and you can use your own UK phone into the bargain.
Now, the wild card in all this: AT&T is about to go national with their captive-brand AIO Wireless (pronounced like “A-O River!!”, Portlandia fans) which is also geared toward bring-your-own. It’s not got pay-by-the-day, but its contract-free offering – on AT&T’s network, apparently – will cost you $70 a month for unlimited talk, unlimited text, and 7 GB of high-speed data. All in one, no fees – flat $70. Which is the same $70 that T-Mobile will charge you for unlimited everything – including data, although you have to think they’re throttling past 5 GB – if you bring your own phone and have no annual contract.
By contrast: that same $70 is what I used to pay AT&T on a deep corporate discount inherited from Cupertino Hexachrome Produce, Ltd. For that $70 I got 450 minutes, 1000 texts and 2 GB of data. And if I still wanted that, I could get the unlimited text and talk and the same 2 GB of data for a slick $55 a month. No hidden fees, no contract, and savings of $180 a year – on the exact same network.
I mean, what’s the catch? There’s got to be a catch. And in a way, there is: this is what happens when you take the phone subsidy out of the equation. The European approach – and if you’re willing to stick with your own device, that’s $50 in your pocket every month. The savings on service are enough that you can buy a new phone every year contract-free if you feel like it. You’re buying a phone when you want or need a new phone, not when the window opens every other year and you have your one chance to take advantage of having been roundly rogered the past 24 months.
This is what I wanted when I switched to GSM a decade ago. The promise of being able to move at will between carriers (well, between two carriers) without having to indenture yourself for years, of divorcing service from device and gaining the natural benefits of a real marketplace.
It’s coming. And as soon as work stops providing me with a phone, I’m going straight there. Believe that.