Technobabbles I try to sound like I know what I'm talking about. Don't be fooled.

9Jun/1210

Did Virgin Mobile USA cut an anti-Android deal with Apple?

Note: There are several embedded tweets in this post that may not appear properly on all devices. Tweets will definitely lack context (what they're "in reply to") on lower-end devices or browsers without JavaScript. Visit the post in a full browser on a PC for the best possible viewing experience. Hopefully WordPress 3.4 will include better tweet display mechanisms and I'll be able to remove this notice.

All right, so the big news is, Virgin Mobile USA will soon carry the Apple iPhone 4S. Which is to say, my pre-paid, Sprint-owned cellular telephone carrier may have cut a deal with Apple to make all their Android devices suddenly look unattractive.

Why do I think that? Oh, no reason, just the plan prices. As my long-time Web contact Zoli Erdos asked of Virgin Mobile's Twitter customer service account, and got an interesting (but not entirely clear) answer:

Wait, "Auto top-up" just means letting them charge for monthly service automatically. I let them do that for my Motorola Triumph.1 Can I get that discount, too? Zoli already got an answer to that question, too:

Huh? Yep, exclusively for iPhone customers, Virgin Mobile USA will take $5/month off of your service plan if you let them charge you automatically every month. Want Android instead? Sucks to be you, you get to pay more.

This story gets even better. I asked, specifically, if there was some kind of deal going on between Virgin Mobile USA and Apple. The answer was surprising, but I'm not entirely sure the responding CSR actually read and understood what I asked:

Let me get this straight. I asked if Virgin Mobile and Apple decided to make Android less appealing, and the answer was "Yes!"? With an exclamation mark?

Wat.

Needless to say, I've been less than amused by the changes to Virgin Mobile's policies over the last year. First they jacked up prices for new customers right before launching the Motorola Triumph in June 2011.23 Virgin Mobile then started throttling 3G data after a 2.5GB monthly usage threshold.4 Then they ended grandfathered plan rates for users who upgrade their devices, meaning that if (when) I eventually upgrade away from the Triumph, my monthly fee will jump from $25/month to $35/month, just because I'm changing phones.5

What started as a great deal for cell phone service is still a good deal compared with contract carriers, to be sure, but the policy changes and new competitors like republic wireless entering the market make it much less sweet. ($19/month for unlimited everything? Tanj, republic, launch something newer than the LG Optimus already!) Ting and NET10 also offer lower-cost smartphone service compared to contract plans, but for my level of usage both are more expensive even than Virgin Mobile's current pricing.

I really don't like this iPhone policy. The one change over the past year that I was actually happy to see Virgin Mobile make was dropping their $10 monthly surcharge for Blackberry devices. Though RIM and its Blackberry devices are all but dead, it was nice to see Virgin Mobile start treating all smartphones equally, pricing-wise. Now, we're back to favoring one platform over the others, and I really don't like that. All smartphone platforms have roughly equal potential for using network capacity, so charging less for one of them makes absolutely no logical sense.

Whether or not there's some behind-the-scenes deal between Virgin Mobile — actually, let's be honest, if it exists the deal is with Sprint — and Apple that's responsible for this price discrepancy, it sure seems like a very anti-Android thing to do. Virgin Mobile, please treat all smartphone plans equally — no platform favoritism. It's the customer-friendly thing to do. Extend the $5/month "Auto top-up" discount to all Beyond Talk plan subscribers (you don't have to include grandfathered users, that's totally understandable) and maybe I won't jump ship to republic wireless as soon as they launch a more powerful device.


Notes:
  1. I've had it since December, but haven't felt the need to review it as I did the LG Optimus V. Pretty much all the bug reports and battery life problems are absolutely true. If I feel like a writing project, though, I'll do a full review of my own, just for completeness. []
  2. Virgin Mobile have since remained unwilling to push Motorola to fix the software problems with said Triumph. Motorola, for its part, pretty much ignores/dismisses all bug reports. They keep offering "Factory Data Reset" as the solution to everything, and haven't said a peep about whether or not there will be a software update. As far as I'm concerned, Motorola's reputation as a phone maker is completely shot. []
  3. Again, I should do a full review of this phone. It's been out almost a year. I also have a really, really ridiculous story about how I got mine. Plus, I need to rant about the whole "Motorola isn't supporting its devices" thing. []
  4. At least there aren't any overage fees. It's slower, but it's still "unlimited". []
  5. As I understand it, this new policy would also affect an emergency switch back to my LG Optimus V, if my Triumph fails someday. That's one of the major reasons that I don't like the policy change. []
24Feb/1036

"No Evil": My NET10 Wireless Experiences

Update (2012 – 02-26): Apparently NET10 now sells SIMs for use with AT&T, T-Mobile, and unlocked GSM phones, if you're willing to pay for the $50/month Unlimited Talk/Text/Data plan. Thanks to Anna for her comment.

NET10 Wireless logo

NET10 Wireless: No Bills. No Contracts. No Evil…?

Last summer I began using a prepaid cell phone (an LG 300G, the cheapest, most basic model available at my purchase location) from NET10 Wireless, supposedly the "high-usage division" of TracFone. NET10's rates are flat: 10¢ per minute (even if it's actually one second, like any other per-minute charge) and 5¢ per text message in or out.

The phone's been very handy for some important calls and the 5¢ text messaging rate sure beats major carriers' rates of 10¢ – 25¢ or more per message (on plans without a texting bundle), but I wonder how true the "No Evil" part of the company's motto really is.

Airtime Treadmill

All of NET10's airtime packages come with a fixed number of days after which users are required to reload, or face losing their accumulated minutes (and their number, though that's not a concern for me because of Google Voice). I don't use the phone that much, so I buy the relatively economical 300-minute package for $30+tax every time I need to re-up, making my effective "monthly bill" $15-and-change. The package gives me 60 days to use my 300 minutes, but — and here's the kicker — whether I use them or not, I am forced to renew every sixty days. My low usage means I've accumulated over 1,000 extra minutes since last June — minutes that I would lose if I fail to renew. In order to not waste the money I've spent before, I must continue to renew my service. I suppose I should be thankful they let me keep all my minutes as long as I continue to renew, eh? :-/

The issue here is, the $30 package is the most economical one I could find. Analysis of the other available packages shows that paying every two months is probably the cheapest maintenance option available. There's a $20 package of 200 minutes, but it only lasts for 30 days. Deal breaker. Similarly, there are packages that last much longer (4,000 minutes for $400, two years' service) but with low usage, paying in two-month increments is actually cheaper in the long run:

  • 1 yr. = $200
  • 60 days × 6 ≈ 1 yr. & $30 × 6 = $180
  • $200 − $180 = $20; 5 days can't possibly equal $20
  • Similarly: 2 yrs. = $400
  • 60 days × 12 ≈ 2 yrs. & $30 × 12 = $360
  • $400 − $360 = $40; 10 days can't possibly equal $40

So it is truly cheaper to pay every two months, or use one of the other packages not exceeding 600 minutes. (At the 1,000-minute level, the number of service days earned for each dollar spent goes down due to the extra $10 price increase: $30 = 60 days, $45 = 90 days, $60 = 120 days, $100 = 180 days.)

I wonder about NET10's stated motto: "No bills, no contracts, no evil". Perhaps there are no bills or monthly contracts, but if you're a low-usage customer you must continue to pay into the system even if you never use most of the airtime you're buying. It's a self-perpetuating cycle that draws people along and keeps them paying so they don't lose their previous airtime investments.

As annoying as the practice of placing an expiration date on minutes that users have paid for is, it's a practice that seems to be matched by most prepaid carriers. I spent about two hours researching all the different options at a Wal-Mart store in Colorado Springs and came to the conclusion that NET10's service was the least evil. Other carriers have no expiration but charge a daily access fee on days the phone is used. Others have ridiculous per-minute rates. So NET10 is not "no evil", but I think "less evil" would be pretty accurate.

SMS Attempt Charges

On New Year's Eve, just after the ball dropped on a rebroadcast segment from Times Square, I attempted to send out a New Year text message to Ping.fm for posting to Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Of course, because it was seconds after midnight (Central), the network was so congested that the message didn't go through. My phone displayed "Sending failed" after spending about thirty seconds trying to send out the text. I tried three more times, to no avail. (I gave up and borrowed a few minutes' access to a computer.)

It wasn't a big deal that the message failed. I knew that the network would be busy. But it was a very big deal that my account balance was still debited for the 5¢ texting charge each time. Failed messages apparently counted. (It should be noted that friends using Verizon were texting with no problems. NET10 uses AT&T's network, which often has coverage and service issues.)

I emailed NET10's customer support. After a few days' back-and-forth, they asked me to call their support center so something could be "verified" on my account. I posed my question to the operator. She informed me (through her thick foreign accent) that the software on NET10's phones takes care of managing charges, and that it is the attempt to send a message that results in a charge; the outcome is irrelevant.

The Post Office charges for returned letters, I suppose, so that's not really a violation of communications business practice. But for a company that claims "no evil", I find that policy disturbing. Blowing 20¢ on failed text messages isn't going to break the bank, but it is annoying in principle. I'll just consider whether or not the network is likely to be busy before sending a message, and refrain from doing so if failure is probable.

The real question is, do other "normal" carriers like Verizon do this? With their much higher rates, I would think conventional monthly-contract providers would have significant user backlash if they attempted such a thing. Does that make NET10 more evil than "less evil"?

Hardware Lock-in

NET10 freely admits that their SIM cards and phones are specific to them. I received the following after emailing support to inquire about the possibility of using an unlocked GSM phone (such as the Nexus One) with their service:

If your phone is not manufactured as a NET10, we will not be
able to activate it using NET10 Wireless Prepaid Services. Hence, the
NET10 Wireless service will not be compatible with an unlocked phone.

Furthermore, NET10 SIM cards only work in the phones they were activated
with. Therefore, the SIM cards should not be switched between phones as
this may result in permanently disabling them.

The above was followed by a paragraph encouraging me to check out the selection of available phones at NET10's website. I did so just on a whim, and my expectation of disappointment did not go unwarranted.

NET10's website catalog lists only 16 phones at present, most of which fall into the "basic" category. Two devices have slide-out keyboards and a special text-messaging rate of 3¢ per message, but at $79.99 they are also the most expensive phones on the list. And of course, a lower text messaging rate would just mean I'd use even less of my balance than I do now. (I don't care about a camera, so I won't analyze that, but many of NET10's phones do have cameras.)

I have seen forum threads about using devices like the iPhone with NET10, and I assume the company has also seen them and works to keep users from doing so. Why prevent use of smarter phones on NET10's service? It comes back to software. Phones not manufactured as NET10 devices do not have the software to deduct minutes from a user's account. People using non-NET10 devices with NET10 service get effectively unlimited usage of voice and text communication because the phone is not configured to manage the account balance.

My question then is, why not commission an Android application to enable smartphone compatibility with NET10 and capitalize on the market of users like myself who would want a smartphone without a data plan? I would certainly be happy to restrict my Internet usage to Wi-Fi – enabled areas; having the phone+SMS+Internet functionality on the same device would be awesome if I could do it without paying for an expensive monthly contract from Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile.

This doesn't make NET10 evil or not, but it does show that they have lower regard for customer choice than one might think. By operating a no-contract cellular service, they are promoting consumer choice, but they limit consumer choice when they restrict the devices that can be used on their network to a tiny subset of the handsets available on the market. Of course, they're not the only carrier to do this; most U.S. carriers have handsets that only work on their network, and have handsets that will not work on their network no matter how much you plead. But still, it's a limiting factor.

Call & Text Spam

While it's not specifically a NET10 problem, I question the company's willingness — or lack thereof — to help me solve the problems. I received frequent and disruptive nuisance calls to my NET10 number from an underhanded collection agency for four months after activating my NET10 phone, and I continue to receive occasional calls from a second. I've never given out my NET10 number to anyone except my mother, and I made her promise never to call or share it; all communications to me come through Google Voice, and direct calls to my cell phone are by definition not for me. The calls also began the morning after I activated my phone.

Aside from the fact that there was no way a collection agency could have gotten my number that quickly, I also have no creditors that could possibly be seeking collection of old debts. I'm not old enough for that. So I was being woken up at 06:00 MDT by calls from Pennsylvania (placed at 08:00 EDT) intended for someone who had thrown away their prepaid phone number long ago. That sucked.

It did occur to me that I could just answer one of the calls and say the person the agency was looking for no longer owned the number, but even that would have cost ten or twenty cents that didn't need to be used on scumbag sub-legal debt collection agencies. (I looked into the firm that called me all summer. My research indicated that they dredge up debts that have long passed any relevant statutes of limitations and attempt to collect on them for profit. Hence my usage of "sub-legal".)

More recently, I've begun to receive spam SMS from various numbers, some of which are so much longer than 10 digits (or 11; senders are usually presented with the digit '1' prepended for some reason) that I don't think they even exist. Only opened messages are charged for, but NET10 is so focused on making money from text messaging (a trait they unfortunately share with all other U.S. cellular carriers) that the software on my phone displays only the first five characters of incoming messages. That limitation makes determining spam extremely difficult. If I could see more of the message — maybe display "Do you have more than $" instead of just "Do yo", scrolled horizontally like the phone's software does for contents of Notes — I could effectively avoid being charged for spam, but in my cynicism I have come to believe that NET10 doesn't care about spam because it potentially makes them more money.

On multiple occasions I have investigated the possibilities for blocking calls from specific numbers (the collections calls are consistent), or filtering spam from my incoming text messages, to no avail. NET10 cannot block calls, but they would have changed my number for "convenience". No guarantees that the new number wouldn't have more nuisance calls than the old one, of course. And there are no provisions for blocking text messages. The kicker is that a "normal", non-NET10 LG 300G would have the ability to block calls by itself, but that feature was removed from the NET10-compatible software. Grr…

My experience is admittedly limited (as I've only ever gotten one number from NET10) but I've heard from friends and classmates that it's not uncommon for a number from any provider to have problems with calls and texts intended for previous owners. It's not specifically part of NET10's "bad" — rather a con universal to the telecommunications industry — but it was still annoying.

Final Thoughts

Despite the issues, I've been pretty happy with NET10 itself. Even if they charge for failed text messages, require renewals every few months, and refuse to help me block spam, they're still a pretty good deal. At some point, once I establish a steady income, I plan to use up the minutes on my current phone and end its service to switch to something a little better. For now it serves the purpose of keeping me connected on the go when I need to be, and $15 a month isn't bad for a U.S. carrier. I'd move to drop them much sooner if they were more expensive.

Of course, these are my experiences with one phone, a NET10-programmed LG 300G purchased in June 2009. Any of the problems I mentioned, especially those related to features of the software features, might not exist on other models or a later release of the 300G.

Update (06/07): Be sure to check out Speak No Evil's comment below. It has some words of warning that I think are important.

Minor edit at 15:20 to correct erroneous usage of ≅ to ≈

1Aug/090

Google Voice App Rejections: Catalyst for Cellular Openness?

If you haven't heard, Apple rejected Google's official Google Voice application several weeks ago (article from this week). However, I (at least) didn't hear the news until recently, when it became known that Apple also began pulling other Google Voice apps from its iPhone/iPod Touch App Store. TechCrunch's sources say that AT&T was behind the bans, and I'll believe it.

Now, I'm not an Apple fanboy, but I've been considering getting an iPod Touch lately. One of my roommates here at Emerson's summer program (yes I know I need to blog about that too; soon, I promise) has one, and he's graciously let me use it occasionally. It's been the perfect opportunity to figure out if I really want one, and try it out with some of my normal online activities. I do want one, though I'll wait until the new version comes out, supposedly in September, with (I hear) a microphone and maybe even a camera.

But back to Google Voice.

One good reason to get an iPod Touch would be a mobile interface to Google Voice that uses Wi-Fi instead of cell phone minutes (for checking voicemail) or text messages. Cost-saving: Check. But the mobile interface for Voice is pretty sparse, so an app would be awesome.

My plans were put in jeopardy when I got wind of the news that Apple had begun pulling apps that worked with the service from the App Store. I checked with my roommate's Touch and confirmed that they no longer appeared. For a while, I considered just skipping it. I was angered by Apple's ridiculous actions, and annoyed that my target device — the iPod Touch — could have its functionality limited by a company that didn't have anything to do with it. The iPhone and Touch might use the same operating system and App Store, but just because AT&T doesn't want an app on the iPhone doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to run it on my iPod.

Today comes news that the FCC sent letters to Apple, AT&T, and Google, beginning an investigation into this high-profile rejection. See, the FCC has a policy agenda here, one that was probably catalyzed by Google's letter to them two years ago. And in June, the FCC confirmed that it would be starting a review of exclusive contracts between handset manufacturers and cellular carriers.

The letters sent today are probably intended to use this heavily reported situation as an example, and to set a precedent. I hope that this investigation will find fault with the way Apple and AT&T conduct their business together, and will result in the FCC's restricting the kinds of apps that can be rejected, barring AT&T's involvement in the application approval process, and possibly even result in a completely open App Store (in the long term) or an unlocked iPhone (also in the long term, though the exclusive contract between AT&T and Apple ends soon enough).

Google went to bat for all of us consumers two years ago with that letter. Maybe it will turn out that they've inadvertently done so again, just by letting Apple do what it wants with the App Store. My fingers and toes are totally crossed on this one; I want an App Store that's more along the lines of the Android Marketplace or a Linux package manager.

Who's with me?

14Nov/070

iPhones Generate iTypos

A study conducted by Chicago-based usability research firm User Centric reveals that iPhone users make over twice as many typos in SMS messages as users of full-keyboard and keypad phones. Their results also indicated that iPhone users do not get better at using the touch-screen keyboard with experience; users of other phone groups were given iPhones and asked to type a message, and they had the same error rate as veteran (a month or more) iPhone users.

Kind of interesting that the latest user interface revolution has flaws over and above preexisting technologies. Perhaps users make errors because of the lack of tactile feedback provided by a touchscreen. Whatever. It's just weird that the iPhone has a big usability flaw; Apple's usually very good at interface design.

Credit to PC World for inspiring my title.

30Oct/070

Hacker Software Jailbreaks iPhones Without a Computer

This seems to be an Apple banner day: three out of five news items concern the company. The latest news? A hacker program for the iPhone named AppSnapp installs itself on iPhone and iPod Touch devices by exploiting a vulnerability in the embedded Safari browser, and then patches the vulnerability after installation. A rather interesting idea, that is.

The website for the program boasts that your device is more secure with AppSnapp than it is without, as the vulnerability used is a long-standing TIFF handler problem. The program does not unlock the phone; users must use anySIM for that. The firefight between the cunning hackers and the deep-pocketed corporation continues…

30Oct/070

No Credit or Debit Card, No iPhone

Speaking of Apple, it has come out recently that consumers can only buy an iPhone with a credit or debit card; cash isn't accepted any more. This restriction comes as an addition to the two-phone-per-person limit enforced since the iPhone's release. An employee at the Apple Store in New York's SoHo neighborhood says Apple needs to do it so they can track who buys the iPhones. The estimated 250,000 unlocked phones are costing them money — up to $4,500,000, according to some estimates — and Apple wants to crack down.

This whole business of unlocking and relocking the iPhone is getting ridiculous; it's becoming like the cat-and-mouse game that is patching Windows vulnerabilities. If only Apple would just consent to have people use their wonderful (from what I've heard) device on a network that doesn't suck…

27Oct/070

iPhone Stats: 250,000 Units Unlocked

Apparently, the 10% to 15% guestimations analysts made about unlocked iPhones were too low. A whopping 18% (approximately 250,000) of all iPhones sold so far (about 1.4 million) are unlocked and running on networks other than AT&T. Apple COO Tim Cook, who made the announcement, also warned users that Apple won't let the phones remain unlocked for long. Remember the 1.1.1 update? I'm watching for another one; it's definitely coming. Apple may be planning to unlock the application platform, but you'll still have to take your apps on an AT&T service plan.

21Oct/070

iPhone Incites Consumer Awareness of Locked Phones

Apparently, all this buzz about the Apple iPhone has sparked consumer awareness in the United States. People are starting to ask themselves why their phones are locked. This is a good thing; carriers have been locking phones for years, and it boils down to the insertion of a few lines of code in each phone's software that keeps it from working with someone else. The handset makers and service providers do it intentionally, to make more money at the expense of their consumers.

In other parts of the world, where GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) phones are the norm (we have them here, but some networks use CDMA ), people can have accounts with two or three (or even more) different carriers, each with unique numbers (or not), and can switch between them simply by swapping out a small memory card, called a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module). France has even made locked phones illegal. And the new awareness in the U.S. could be successful in finally making people rise up against their oppressors and demand unlocked phones.

The iPhone is by far not the first locked device. Carriers have been teaming up with handset makers to offer exclusive phones for years and years. It is only because of the incredible hype surrounding the iPhone that people are starting to think about the restrictions placed on their phones, and that they shouldn't have them.

Apple will be selling the iPhone, locked, through one carrier in every country in which they decide to market it. France will be an exception, with a (higher-priced) unlocked version available. I don't think, personally, that people should have to pay extra for unlocked phones; however, most phones aren't sold for their actual value. Part of the reason phones are locked is so carriers can offer steep handset discounts; they make more money because the discounts (usually) require a one– or two-year contract with the selling provider. And once your contract expires, chances are you won't be able to take the phone with you anyway.

Hopefully, this change in consumer thinking will force handset makers and carriers to move to GSM phones and SIM cards. Provided that some networks already do, others don't, and unlocked phones need GSM to work well. SIM cards could become the equivalent of the multitude of access codes we use every day to get into services like Google, MSN, Yahoo!, etc. Those networks don't prevent us from using our own computers on competing sites; why should cellphone makers restrict our phones' use?

17Oct/070

iPhone SDK Due in February

In what looks like a response to all the iPhone hacking going on, Apple has announced that they will be releasing an SDK (Software Development Kit) for the iPhone and iPod Touch this coming February. A step in the right direction, finally. Soon, hacks like Jailbreak and the newer iPhoneJailBreak won't be necessary. Third-party apps will be written and installable directly on the phone without any tweaks. I can finally say, "Go Apple!"

16Oct/070

iJailBreak: New iPhone App Installer

PC World reports that a thirteen-year-old coder, named AriX, has released an application to install third-party applications on the new iPhone firmware. It is freely downloadable from Google Code. The only interaction necessary, according to the article, is a soft-reset of the iPhone.

I don't know what's more impressive: The fact that the new encrypted software has been cracked, or the fact that a 13-year-old did this. Very impressive! Congratulations, AriX!