I want to make this clear right up front: as a consumer, I really like AT&T.
The nation’s second-largest carrier has, for my entire time as a customer, provided me with outstanding LTE speeds, excellent coverage in the places I live and work, and a device selection that blows my previous carrier out of the water. Its rate plans aren’t cheap, but they’re at least fair – and I’m even reasonably certain the provider has my back in case of a national emergency. I like AT&T a lot.
But seeing the Lumia 1020 announced this morning as yet another Ma Bell exclusive put a sour taste in my mouth. That’s a sentiment shared by much of the American Pocketnow team, as evidenced by our collective reaction in this morning’s Pocketnow Live Editorial Roundtable around the 41-minute mark. We don’t agree on everything, but we’re all pretty sure we hate the idea of a single carrier landing a stranglehold on a new, awesome smartphone.
Again, I feel it’s important to make clear that there are far worse carriers to choose as a launch partner than AT&T; as mentioned above, the nation’s second-largest wireless provider has a lot going for it. In fact, I’d have been incensed had Big Blue not picked up the 1020. Rest assured, I’ll be at a carrier store for launch day, just as I was for the Lumia 920. It’s the exclusivity that’s troublesome, from the perspective of a sometime Nokia advocate and the Windows Phone platform as a whole.
Exclusivity is often a mixed bag. AT&T is no stranger to such arrangements, having secured one of the highest-profile exclusivity agreements in smartphone history with the initial iPhone back in 2007. Verizon (and the Android platform) saw great success with the Motorola Droid exclusive in 2010. Before any of that, T-Mobile USA was able to maintain a tight grip on a significant portion of the young-adult market with its Sidekick (Hiptop) series.
But it’s not always a cake walk. Exclusivity sometimes delivers disastrous results. Probably the most famous example in the US is the great webOS fiasco, with the beleaguered Palm teaming up with the underdog Sprint to launch the Palm Pre exclusively on the nation’s yellowest network – a decision that didn’t turn out too well for either entity, and which helped send one of them to the dustbin.
But you don’t need to look far to see other examples of the damaging effect of exclusivity on device adoption. In fact, you don’t even need to look beyond the current example of AT&T and Windows Phone.
The Lumia 900 was the first Nokia Windows Phone to see a carrier release in the US. It launched on AT&T on April 8, 2012 – a day notable not just for that long-awaited release, but also because it was Easter Sunday. The fact that at least some retail locations were closed on that day (as our own Taylor Martin discovered when he tried buying one) was apparently no impediment to AT&T’s launch plans, despite its own contention that the 900 would receive a launch treatment “a notch above anything we’ve ever done.” The device was quickly discounted as talk of follow-on Windows Phone 8 devices picked up steam, and its star soon faded when its successor, the Lumia 920, launched in November.
I was at an AT&T store the morning of release to buy my own 920 -the device I still use as my daily driver- and reported on the experience in a video released the same day. My takeaway was that the carrier hadn’t really learned much from its experience with the Lumia 900. Sure, retail employees were decked out in Windows Phone garb and they at least had stock on-hand, but no live demo 920s were out on the floor, not all colors were available for purchase, and the free wireless charging plate Nokia was pushing wasn’t available at the store, but needed to be mailed out instead. Oh, and the phone launched the same day as the iPad mini.
To its credit, AT&T did move swiftly to correct some of these oversights -as I say, it’s a good carrier in many respects- and not all of these issues were major. But it was still a bumpy release for a phone that was supposed to be getting the flagship treatment.
That’s the risk a manufacturer runs when getting into bed with one carrier. No matter what carrier it is, and no matter how much lip-service it pays to the notion of putting all its marketing muscle behind a device, the manufacturer is completely at the provider’s mercy when launch day comes. Of course there are other markets, but for a company whose sales are already plummeting in North America and a platform that still needs every hit possible to gain traction, wouldn’t it make more sense to launch on as many carriers as possible?
There’s information we don’t have, obviously. The details of Nokia’s arrangement with AT&T are no doubt complex, and neither company is giving much in the way of explanation. If the sound bites are to be believed, each is perfectly content with the partnership. And the existence of the arrangement obviously doesn’t preclude Nokia from building, say, a “Lumia 1028″ for Verizon later on, or a “Lumia 1010″ for T-Mobile. (Reference the Lumia 810, Lumia 822, Lumia 928, Lumia 925, and about a billion other carrier variants we’ve reviewed.)
But each flagship launch that carries a lengthy exclusivity period serves to turn away a portion of the potential customer base. The segment that goes “oh, it’s only on AT&T? Well, I’m not leaving T-Mobile” is the exact same segment that won’t spend upwards of $700 to buy the device unlocked just to use on another carrier. And by the time the non-exclusive variants ship in six or eight months, the buzz surrounding the base device has already died down enough that people start saying “just wait for the next flagship.” That follow-on device then launches exclusively on AT&T again – and the cycle continues.
Is the 1020 a compelling device? If you ask me, the answer is “absolutely” – in fact, it’s probably my next phone. Is its arrival on AT&T bad news? Again, if you ask me (or the 107 million other AT&T subscribers) the answer is definitely no. It’s great to have that option. But the news ain’t as rosy for the other 223 million wireless users in the country on other carriers, many of whom are locked to those providers via expensive termination fees. In the short term, that’s over 200 million lost opportunities for Nokia and for Windows Phone – and neither of those entities needs lost opportunities right now.