Walt Mossberg goes for the jugular

Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s personal tech columnist, usually writes columns that are scrupulously fair, in which he takes issue with the flaws of a device (which he invariably gets before anyone else) but in a relatively diplomatic fashion — balanced by comments about the positive aspects of whatever it is that he’s reviewing. Not today though. Today, Walt seems to be mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it any more.

Maybe Walt is catching on to the spirit of the blogosphere, but his blog post at All Things D — which is about how cellular providers lock in their customers — is everything his WSJ columns aren’t: opinionated, even angry. But rightly so. His point is a simple one: Why are mobile carriers able to lock down their devices and prevent people from using them on other networks? As Walt notes, your PC doesn’t work with just one Internet service provider. The car company doesn’t prevent you from driving on certain roads. And yet, for some reason we have become complacent about the way that cellular contracts restrict our choices. And all because, as Walt puts it:

“A shortsighted and often just plain stupid federal government has allowed itself to be bullied and fooled by a handful of big wireless phone operators for decades now.”

Walt goes on to compare the cellular companies to the old Soviet ministries, who tried to coerce markets into operating the way they wanted them to, instead of adapting to the way that they functioned. And he also draws a straight line connecting their current behaviour with the way the early phone companies such as AT&T ran things, with phones that only connected using their network.

When it comes to the technology part of his argument, I’m not sure Walt is on such firm ground. While the U.S. choosing to allow multiple standards may have been wrong in the long run, mandating a single standard (as Europe did) would undoubtedly have caused a hue-and-cry about state control, even though it resulted in a market that increased consumer choice.

Mossberg also correctly notes, however, that the phone subsidies the carriers use to justify their customer lock-down practices are a sham — or rather, a circular argument. Phones are expensive (and therefore require subsidies) in part because consumers can’t buy and use them freely across different networks.

In any case, it’s nice to see Mossberg not pull any punches for once. Welcome to the blogosphere, Walt.

VoIP over Wi-Fi and other dreams

Walking along the street, you decide to make a phone call with your cell. Pulling out your phone, it detects a wireless signal and logs on automatically, allowing you to make your call by Wi-Fi instead of using your expensive cellular service. Sounds great, doesn’t it? And hopefully, someday, that dream will come true and we’ll all be able to do just that. How close that vision might be is an open question, however.

A piece in the New York Times has gotten plenty of people excited about the prospect, given the interest expressed by companies like T-Mobile, Cisco and Earthlink. T-Mobile, for example, says it wants to let users switch seamlessly from its cell network to Wi-Fi hotspots it owns, which sounds great. But what if you want to use your phone in someone else’s hotspot — how easy will that be? Will you have to sign on and authenticate yourself every time, and/or pay your provider?

I’m as excited as the next guy about the idea of using Wi-Fi to make Skype calls instead of cellular calls — but I don’t think the carriers are going to make it as easy as I might like it to be, and I think we could wind up with a mish-mash of standards, charges and procedures. As usual, I think Om Malik has the right mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism on this one.