The New Charlatans

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It's customary to imagine that the most unpopular establishments in modern society are solicitors and estate agents (in the US, I guess the equivalent is lawyers and realtors; though I can't testify to their level of popularity from here). However, I reckon that the growing use and capabilities of mobile phones has paved the way for a whole new group of industrial charlatans. Aided, no doubt, by the possibilities offered by computerization and automation - something for which we, as developers, are partly responsible.

If you've tried to buy one of those fancy new smartphones recently, you've no doubt encountered some of the ingenious ways that the mobile phone service companies (the people who connect your amazing new device to the outside world) strive to confuse, obscure, bewilder, complicate, and generally befuddle us. It should be really easy: choose a phone, and then decide how much you want to pay each month for the specific matrix of services and allowances that best suit your requirements and usage patterns.

But, of course, it's not. You can choose to get the phone for free and pay a higher rate per month, or pay a bit towards the phone and pay a slightly lower monthly fee, or buy the phone outright and choose a package at much lower price. In theory, if you do the "free phone" thing with a fixed term contract, you'd think that the phone would be their responsibility throughout the life of the contract, just like if you rent a car or some other item. But that's not the case - if the phone goes wrong, it's your problem unless you pay extra for insurance. Yet you still have to pay the rest of the rental for the contract term.

It wouldn't be so bad, but all of the comparison web sites show that the free phone deals actually cost more over the contract term than buying the phone yourself. And, of course, the terms and conditions clearly state that the monthly fee and inclusive allowances for the contract can change during the term. And you can't replace or upgrade your phone until the end of the contract period either. That is, of course, if they can actually provide the phone and contract that you agreed to buy. Having spent three weeks wandering between delivery depots during the bad weather, my long-awaited Windows Phone finally arrived. Or rather, a package that I didn't order (and is, as you'd expect, a lot more expensive) arrived. Can they just "change it on the computer" to the one I ordered? No, it has to go back to them. Oh well, I suppose I can't actually go anywhere in this weather, so I don't really need a phone...

However, my wife (an intrepid traveller) just decided to equip herself with a new phone. She can't find anything like the old Motorola V8 that she loved so much, and instead went for a rather nice HTC Desire that does all the modern bells and whistles stuff. And rather than mess about trying to figure which service package she needed, and switch her number from our current provider, she just bought the phone outright to use with the SIM-only package we already have. Quick, easy, and pain free you'd think? No chance. First off, when you buy a "phone-only" package you have to, as the sales guy so eloquently explained, "have it on pay and go". That's what we want - pay for the phone and go home. Oh no, what it means is that you have to have a "pay and go" SIM card with it, and you have to buy at least ten pounds top-up to get the SIM card for free. Despite the fact that we don't want or need a SIM card (and didn't actually get one), we still had to pay the ten pounds charge for a "pay and go top-up" that we can't actually use.

The service package we have has a "Web Daily" inclusive feature, which - according to the web site blurb - "allows occasional access to data services for email and web browsing without paying for a fixed data allowance". Yes it does, but at 3 pounds ($ 4.50) per MB. OK, so the maximum charge per day is capped at one pound, but as you'll obviously access it every day when the phone automatically synchronizes your email, that's starting to look like an expensive deal. No problem: for five pounds per month you can add a data service to your package that has a 500 MB allowance. And you can add it over the web without having to listen to Greensleeves (or the latest hit from some unknown boy band) on the phone for half an hour.

I can understand that, when you add the data package, it removes the free "Web Daily" facility. However, it also removes the "Free Calls to Landlines" facility (where calls to non-mobile numbers are not subtracted from your "free minutes" allowance). Nobody I spoke to at the supplier can explain why paying more for the service means that you get less from it. Perhaps they imagine that everyone will send emails through the data package to people who they previously used to call, so they won't need to make non-mobile calls any more. Or maybe it's just another surreptitious way for them to make a bit more profit.

However, having got it all working, I'd have to admit that I'm amazed at what the phone can do. It took only a marginal effort to get it to work with our Wi-Fi, and talk to the hosted Exchange Server we use for email. It even synchronizes contacts with Outlook, and lets you upload and download music and photos from the phone as though it was a disk drive. As it contains an SD card, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but it's a refreshing change after fighting with the awful synchronization application that Motorola provided for the V3 (and which doesn't run on Windows Vista or Windows 7).

But, best of all, it actually sets the date and time automatically. My old Motorola V3 has never once managed that, so every time I turn it on it shows the date and time I last used it (which is sometimes a month or more ago). I wonder if I can justify buying a new phone just so I don't have to set the date and time manually...?

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The New Charlatans