Verizon Wireless, my mobile carrier, has been pestering me lately. An equipment upgrade offer was pending. My pair of old Motorola RAZR V3c handsets serve me quite well so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to add a third number and a new handset for my son, something we’ve been talking about for a while. Yesterday we stopped at one of their local brick-and-mortar facilities to get that done. I don’t know about you, but every time I have to physically show up to do something with my mobile phones there is trouble of one sort or another…
I’m an unusual wireless customer. I use my phone to make and receive voice calls. For email, Web, music, pictures, videos, ad nauseum, I’ll reach for a more appropriate piece of equipment. I’m not thrilled with Verizon Wireless’ closed network, either, or the way they nickel-and-dime you for every little thing. But their performance – at least where I use it – is second to none. I cannot recall the last time I had a call drop or not go through. Each ‘line’ (an archaic term in the wireless world) draws from a single pool of enough minutes that we use it without thinking and never need to buy extra, thanks to a reasonably priced grandfathered contract, sans enhanced services, that they haven’t offered in years. I’ve been a steady customer for better than a decade and a half. I’m an unusual customer.
We found a handset my son liked and made our way to the counter only to learn that the upgrade offer applied only to my V3c. But nothing’s carved in stone and after some discussion we found a way: a temporary upgrade. I buy a new handset (an LG VX9100, free after the promotion) and move my number to it. I buy an additional ‘line’ for my son, and assign the new number to my old V3c. Finally, the next day, we would swap the numbers between the two handsets, under the auspices that I’m unhappy with the new handset. Normally that swap would be $20 a pop, but there would be no charge. And everybody would be happy.
A while later we discovered that my V3c didn’t respond on the new number. Things went downhill fast from there. Tech Support reported that the new number belonged to a Blackberry belonging to Merrill Lynch, that my contract shows only two numbers, and that my V3c ESN no longer exists. Oops.
Back at the store they tried to get me to just replace the handset, “Just take the best we’ve got, no charge!” No thanks, I want the one I’ve got, please fix it. They finally managed to install a dummy ESN onto it and assign the new number, and get my contract to recognize them both. But because of the dummy ESN the handset doesn’t do anything, it’s a brick. Tomorrow, they say, they will be able to finish straightening it out.
I need to digress with some history… Verizon Wireless was probably the last carrier on Earth to add the incredibly popular – and profitable – Motorola RAZR handsets. The reasons were two-fold. First, the CDMA chipset was physically larger, and Motorola had some difficulty making it fit into the small package. Second, all Verizon Wireless phones (at the time) sported an external antenna, which helped them to provide their outstanding network performance. The RAZR’s antenna is internal. As for me, I wanted the small size but I was unwilling to switch carriers. So I waited it out. Eventually Motorola got the hardware into the handset and got the antenna performance good enough to pass Verizon Wireless’ performance testing (it took several rounds of testing which led to yet more delays). Finally they were set to roll ’em out. Just in time for Christmas! Well, sort of.
In the mobile phone industry, a hardware manufacturer will develop a new handset and the base software to make it the features work, as well as an SDK. A carrier will take that and develop their own software layer, which in turn becomes the set of services and capabilities that differentiate one carrier from another. In the case of Verizon Wireless, with their closed network, part of their software development is to lock down the handset. The customized RAZR software, due to the Christmas sale deadline, was a rush job.
Watching all that unfold, I bought my handsets a day or two before they became available at the stores. My handsets are not locked down. The best thing about this is my Bluetooth profiles include OBEX. And that means I can add custom rings I make myself, get images and voice recordings on and off, use the crappy little camera (when needed and nothing better is available), use it as a wireless (or wired, via USB) modem with the laptop, and so on, all without incurring Verizon Wireless charges.
And that’s why I don’t want to give up these handsets or upgrade their firmware. Whenever I need to explain this, the representative smiles and understands. [Ed. 6 July 2008: My wife, OTOH, never really understood why I held those capabilities so dear. That is, until the latest bill arrived. My son had bought a ringtone. $2.95, no big deal, but the browsing charges, the megabyte charges, and the fact that he tried the Web browsers on all of our handsets by the time he was through, had brought the cost of that stupid ringtone to near $20. When I explained how billing works, and had real examples to use, the lightbulb went on.]
So today I will see whether they can get this mess straightened out. I’m nervously optimistic.