Americans Could Learn From Europe About Cell Phones

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Once a year, I visit an alternate reality: Europe, for the 3GSM cell-phone show.

When it comes to cell phones, Europe gets so many things right, much righter than we do.

Take short-code texting: In Barcelona, you can stand at a bus stop and send a quick text message to a four-digit number, and it will tell you when the next bus is coming.

The city transit system even offers a mobile Web site that tells you — with maps — how to get between any two points via bus ride.

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People actually use the mobile Web over there, in large part because T-Mobile (the European T-Mobile, not ours) has aggressively pushed a plan called "Web 'n' Walk" to get the idea of Web-enabled phones into the public consciousness.

[Editor's note: The various "T-Mobile" companies in operation in the U.S. and Europe are all subsidiaries of Deutsche Telekom.]

Mobile Web marketing is so mixed up and confused in this country, with so many bizarre brand names, it's no wonder that Americans don't have a clue. What the heck is an mMode, anyway?

One European told me that mobile phones and services are more advanced over there because there's more competition.

Think of it: We have five major cell-phone operators for about 300 million people. Western Europe has about 400 million people, but they're divided into 24 countries with three or four operators in each.

With operators spanning borders and people moving easily between countries, you have a market where dozens of major players provide opportunities for handset manufacturers, as well as application providers dying to sell the next cool mobile solution.

That's a much more fertile ground for innovation than the U.S. market, where ideas are judged by only five people.

Americans talk more than any other mobile phone consumers on earth, and we have superfast wireless data networks in most of our major cities. But we're way behind the curve on actually using those networks.

Yes, we're a bunch of Wal-Mart–shopping, McDonald's-eating boors who don't care what we buy as long as it's cheap. But I can't help thinking that our carriers' locked-down thinking on mobile applications needs to be opened up with a government crowbar.

If the market can't provide sufficient competition on its own, let's goose it, so a new market of mobile applications and Web services can truly take off.

That said, there's a downside to Europe's mobile centricity that's affecting U.S. consumers.

The irony is that two of the most innovative and dynamic cell phone players are hurting competition here in the States, abandoning half of the U.S. market because of an ego-related "not invented here" snit.

Nokia and Sony Ericsson have stopped making phones for American CDMA networks — that's Alltel, Sprint, and Verizon [Wireless] — because they don't want to pay royalties to Qualcomm, a San Diego–based company that owns a lot of CDMA patents.

(Yes, Verizon does offer a few Nokia phones, but they're really mediocre Korean phones with Nokia labels slapped on them as they come off the assembly line).

Nokia whines at great length about how Qualcomm makes it impossible for the company to make money on CDMA phones, but HTC, LG, Motorola, Pantech, Samsung and UTStarcom don't seem to have that problem. (Notice that none of those manufacturers are European.)

This nasty little spat rose up again in Barcelona because of the big buzz this year: mobile TV.

Here in the States, both AT&T and Verizon will be selling TV phones that show full-length top shows like "24" in broadcast quality. Verizon rolled out its system in 20 cities in March.

In Barcelona, all the mobile-TV buzz was around a European standard called DVB-H. But AT&T and Verizon have gone with MediaFLO, a Qualcomm standard.

The result might be, once again, fewer phone options for Americans, because the European manufacturers invariably turn up their noses at Qualcomm.

Vive la différence? Maybe. But I think we Americans would be better served if we could learn a little from Europe about the real power of mobile phones, and if a few of their companies could give up a little pride in exchange.

Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.