John Legere: He’s uncarrier but is he uncaring?

In just seventeen months as T-Mobile CEO, John Legere has seen his “Uncarrier” strategy add 4.4 million subscribers.

Uncarrier is an awkward name for a carrier who does not behave like one.  So if you’re on T-Mobile, you won’t have a contract, you’ll have cheaper bills because there are no more built-in phone subsidies, upgrades are less restrictive and more affordable, they’ll unlock your phone with less hassle, and you’ll even get (quite slow) unlimited global roaming.  And if you’re not on T-Mo, then John will pay you to switch from another carrier.

It all sounds wonderful and I suppose it is. Before Legere, we were politely treated like schmucks by everybody.  Once T-Mo started giving customers more freedom, the other carriers reluctantly joined in.

But that’s well documented. And it’s not hard to document it because Mr Legere is an extremely active tweeter, frequently calling out his peer at AT&T Randall Stephenson and pulling off a PR masterstroke by getting thrown out of an AT&T party, gaining national headlines in the process. Legere loves to re-tweet T-Mobile love-ins from customers and admirers, as well as re-tweet his own employees who have been encouraged to take in-store photographs with happy customers who have dropped their wireless carrier to join the Magenta Revolution.

But like any good marketeer, Legere will deflect the not-so-good things.  For example, he was noticeably quiet last week about announced changes to the early-upgrade program, Jump!. He’s usually all over Twitter, kicking metaphorical sand in the faces of his lame competitors. But John knows it’s not as good a deal as it was so he knows when to keep schtum. You also won’t see him go head-to-head with the elephant in the room.

John hasn’t made friends with everybody though. T-Mobile have been doing their best to rid themselves of Blackberry for a while. It’s probably no surprise since interest in their phones have been waning for years now. But while other carriers still give their customers the choice of trying out and buying a Blackberry phone in-store if they wish, T-Mobile have taken deliberate steps to sideline the company’s product.

Speaking as someone who flips phones twice a year, I tend to jump (pun probably intended) between Android and Blackberry every year.  Over the last two and a half years I’ve gone from the first Galaxy Note to the Blackberry Bold 9900 to the Galaxy S3 to the Blackberry Z10 and to the Galaxy Note 3. I’ve even used Apple and Windows Phone. I’m fairly agnostic.

Since I’m on the Jump program – perfect for someone like me – I was all set to pick up the Blackberry Z30 T-Mo Upgradeas my next phone in April.  The problem?  T-Mobile don’t carry it. And they won’t carry it. The demand for the phone has led to a petition and a campaign directly addressed to John Legere.

But T-Mo even went further than sidelining and ignoring their Blackberry users – they started trolling them.

Now you can call Blackberry users sensitive if you like. But the bottom line is that these are Legere’s customers, they pay money for their phones and their service and they are all still waiting for T-Mo to issue a software update that even Verizon began rolling out. 

Legere’s response?  Well, promising actually.

But what did it amount to? Nothing. A wishy-washy, say-nothing cop-out that patronized Blackberry users by telling them they did not have to give up their devices. Bless them.

Legere is absolutely entitled to say we won’t sell any more Blackberry phones. But the problem is, he won’t say it. He won’t explain where the 10.2.1 update is, why he can’t find shelf space for Blackberry and he won’t clearly state “we will not carry the Z30 – please go to Verizon if you want it”.

People like Legere are a breath of fresh air but it doesn’t take much for someone who is so “out there” to fall out of favour.  The changes to Jump, this ridiculous press release and his alienating of a small but enthusiastic paying user base, may suggest that the honeymoon period is coming to a close.  For Legere perhaps he feels he is near the end anyway if Sprint end up buying T-Mo. I think that would be job done.

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Back in Blackberry

Motorola Atrix. From … Motorola.

Phase Atrix

About 15 months ago I dumped my (small, well-formed but anemic) Blackberry Bold 9700 for the sexy, dual-core world of Android – namely the Motorola Atrix. The Atrix was the most powerful smartphone at the time – two big fat cores (which means it goes fast), lots of RAM, a slick four inch touchscreen, front and back cameras, HSPA+ connection (fake 4G), a finger-print unlock technology (really) and an interesting but expensive “webdock” that allowed you to plug in to a dumb terminal and use as a laptop.

It was hard not to be drawn to all the pizzazz. Android, after all, had an app for everything. And here it was, presented in slick Technicolor and multi-touch. But the love quickly faded as I realised that the handset just did not have any personality. It was to Blackberry what the IBM-compatible was to the Commodore Amiga.

At the same time, I saw the new Blackberry Bold 9900 in the works. It was a throwback to the breakthrough Bold 9000 which meant more screen and physical button real estate. But, in their infernal wisdom, RIM decided to price it high instead of taking what was to become the Microsoft/Nokia approach of almost giving away the Lumia to drive adoption. At $299 on a two-year contract or the usual $600 unlocked, it just wasn’t very compelling.

Windows Phone. Nice but not nice enough.

Windows – A Brief Encounter

In a fit of pique I took a brief jump to Windows Phone as Dell started selling off their Venue Pro handset for $250 unlocked. Impressed and all as i was with the phone – durable, good physical keyboard and surprisingly good virtual one, vibrant screen, fluid OS – the under-developed operating system had too many limitations and half-baked ideas to be ready for prime-time. It did a fair bit but didn’t really excel at anything.

Take Note

Then the Android-powered Galaxy Note hit Europe in late 2011. I imported the 5.3″ behemoth. It was a champion – is a champion. With all things considered, it’s probably the best phone I’ve ever used. Even taking in to account the annoying lag that Android (pre-Jelly Bean) has trademarked, the usability of what was basically a phone-cum-tablet meant it was useful for just about everything. And I’ve happily used it for nine months.

But over the last while I’ve started to assess what I do with my phone versus what I need it to do. I’ve long watched iPad adverts, bemused by the flashy, energetic slide show of tasks that the hardware can do: it can make pie charts, it can read books, watch movies, play games, let you pinch and zoom in on Uranus. But I imagine only a small percentage of people do more than surf and watch the odd film. Indeed, Business Insider’s 2011 survey indicated as much.

A massive Note.

Similarly, I owned a phone that was a mini iPad, albeit one running Android. And it had a surprisingly good little stylus that seamlessly slid in to the bottom of the device. But did I really need all that power and choice in my pocket? Did I need Netflix and Hulu Plus, MyFitnessPal for entering my calories during the day, turn-by-turn navigation, retailer-specific apps, 3D games, Google Earth? Did I need 10-12 different browsers or 100s of themes to make my phone feel unique?

I used them, sure.  But did I need them?

It’s nice to have these options and apps available but not at the expense of what a phone really should be – a solid communication and messaging device. And that’s something that Blackberry does very well without bells and whistles.

After all I’m the guy who owned a Nook Color but “downgraded” to an e-ink Nook Simple Touch because the Color was way too distracting from what it really should be – an e-reader. To coin a cliche, sometimes less is more.

Back in Blackberry

And it was with that context that a Craigslist ad finally brought me together with, not just the Blackberry Bold 9900, but a white one!  And while the Blackberry is “less” in terms of its reach and functionality, I just feel I get a better all round communication solution that still does the essentials.

I’ve got excellent email service, more than adequate Facebook and Twitter apps, Google Voice for international calling, Viber (albeit without calls yet) and WhatsApp for messaging, TuneIn Radio and podcast apps, Google Maps to show me where I am, WordPress for blogging, Starbucks card (still works in spite of the company stopping support) for my caffeine fix, GasBuddy for finding the cheapest petrol, apps to read my RSS feeds and so on.  Beyond that pretty much everything else is a luxury.

The shortcomings are there in the sense that the camera and camcorder are not as advanced as what’s out there and turn-by-turn navigation is not included in Maps. But then again, if I’m in my car then I’ve got my Garmin (which is better than the, frankly, sometimes-mental Google navigation).  The Internet is harder to use on the smaller screen but the browser works well enough. Even on the Galaxy Note, some websites were just annoying to try to navigate so I mainly did simple surfing which the Bold is capable of.

And then there’s the three big home runs.  Firstly, the physical keyboard. A lot of people like touch screen but not me – not until they make touch screens tactile will I feel comfortable on one.  Even with Swype – the best touchscreen keyboard – I still ended up effing up half the stuff I typed.

Secondly, battery life.  After fairly heavy use of the 9900, I’d still go to bed with about 20-30% battery.  My Note was usually down in the single digits if I had the screen on regularly or used GPS for a small amount of time.  Thirdly, it’s a damn good phone with great voice quality.

Sometimes you got to compromise and the Blackberry is a good compromise.

Post-modern

The reaction has been raised eyebrows and exclamations of “Blackberry!?”. And that’s been the fun part.  I’d gladly have the debate with anyone about why the Blackberry does pretty much everything they truly need.

And now I almost feel that moving back to Blackberry is a kind of post-modern thing to do – you know, like vinyl, Atari and Def Leppard.

From Atrix to Dell to Note to Bold