Cars & Wireless

10:40 AM -- In the early 1980s, when U.S. car makers’ long downward market share slide began accelerating, I read an interesting article that has stuck with me to this day. It turns out the execs from the Big 3 car companies got company cars. No surprise. They drove their cars all over the Detroit area, lived and golfed at Grosse Point with other folks from the car ecosystem, shopped and dined in the warm bosom of a world where the “Big 3” still ruled the roost.

But more than that, they parked their cars in heated garages at their company HQs, the cars were meticulously maintained by company mechanics, and the cars, provided for free, were replaced by new ones every three to six months. Quality issues? Never saw them. Market-share issues? What market-share issues? Everywhere they drove, everybody had American cars. Gas or Service costs? Irrelevant. Dealing with a dealer network where most Americans would probably prefer a few root canals than going to the new or used car dealer? They never had to do it.

Skip ahead 25 years, and this was me, but in relation to mobile phones. As an exec in a Fortune 500 company in the telecom biz, if I needed a phone, my assistant got it for me. A bag would come from the IT department with the phone, travel adapters, extra battery, and the latest Bluetooth headset. My bill? Centralized, and although IT did a good job of managing the cost side, the pain of variations in monthly costs, especially with international travel, was not something I felt. Dealing with direct (carrier owned) or indirect (third party outlet) channels of the operator was something I would do on my travels for market study purposes, but it was somewhat akin to going to an aquarium and staying on the dry side of the glass. My scenario was not unique, and like the car execs, is still replicated across tens of thousands of execs globally, everywhere from the operators to the handset folks and the application developers.

But then after 24 years in the corporate world, I left my tight little cocoon, and have had to fend for myself -- buying IT equipment, buying phones, visiting stores with a different frame of reference. As I’ve done this both in the U.S. and in Europe, a common theme has emerged. One day in a European capital, I was in a store, with state of the art phones displayed in a muddled fashion and random signage touting tech jargon -- much of which was not even correct -- or the latest service plans complete with lots of clauses and small print. A man next to me in the store suddenly turned to me and said “It’s all so confusing.” The next day, when I described this visit to a leading wireless industry analyst, he replied, "The level of trust between the operator community and the consumer is at an all-time low."

The stores on this side of the pond were no better. One example: a store merchandised by one carrier and operated by a third party, with horrible design, terrible selection, and an indifferent sales staff that was unable to enunciate or differentiate the staggeringly complex array of service plans because the microscope used to read the fine print on the plan contracts had a blown bulb. OK, a bit of hyperbole, but that’s how I felt, and as I expanded my "focus group of one" to my peers and relatives, it became clear I am not alone.

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