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Monday, February 21, 2005

The Walled Garden Mobile Device

Marching arm-in-arm, into the happy future.

I imagine that sometime early last year, senior Sony Ericsson executives made the long journey to Cingular Wireless headquarters for a meeting. This meeting took place, I'm thinking, inside a special compound. The compound was astroturfed and outfitted with many artificial plants. Gas vapor lights overhead were of a special kind, with a color temperature that resembles daylight. Here and there could be found cheap but shiny patio furniture - and even a barbecue grill or two. The walls and ceiling encasing the space were made of cinder block that still smelled of new construction.

"Thank you for joining us today," began the Cingular execs. "We asked you here to share with you our ideas for the future. As one of our primary partners, we hope that you, Sony Ericsson, will help us arrive at this future."

After some additional preliminaries, the Cingular execs turned to details.

"Our plan is this," they said. "We'd like to use this space - the one we're meeting in today - for containing our customers. They will have their wallets with them . . . and we can provide whatever they might need. They get this delightful environment you see, and we, well, we get a captive audience. It's win-win. And the margins we forecast - killer.

"True, we might run out of space - but that would be a good problem to have, no? We can build out. Now, here's where you come in.

"We'd like for you to make the device that will entice them to come in here, and stay after arriving. We can fill in details later if you agree. What do you think?"

"Well," the SE execs might have replied, "Have you considered that your customers might not be happy here - after having grown up in the larger world?"

"Yes, we did think of that. But only for a moment. Never overestimate your customers. First rule of business in North America."

I'm guessing this meeting took place, because Sony Ericsson has delivered the goods. To wit, the Z500a, a flip phone I picked up from Cingular Wireless, my new provider, this past Friday.

Sony Ericsson must be the Toyota of mobile device manufacturers. When you open and close the Z500a, it has the solid feel and satisfying thunk of the door on a well made car. The phone's RF is top notch, and the microphone and speaker likewise. The inside screen boasts a purported 65,000 colors (although it doesn't appear appreciably better than the (larger) screen on my dearly departed 3650) and wide use is made on the phone of Java, for everything from themes, to a couple of on board games in trial version. A VGA camera resides in the outside flip, right above a smaller outside screen. And, best of all, the phone is EDGE capable.

Imagine my surprize, then, when I got the phone home and found that it makes no provision for memory cards. The only storage is 6 MB of on board RAM. Nor does it come with any method of exchanging data with your computer - no infrared, no Bluetooth, not even a data cable in the box.
So how are you supposed to get, say, your pictures off of it? That's what I was asking. And what about a web browser? This phone comes equipped with an advanced WAP browser - but there's no way of getting out to the larger web. I mean, why put EDGE on a phone with no storage and no web browser? And why give it a camera?

Then it hit me. You're supposed to transport data through Cingular, and download games and apps from their WAP site. That's the ONLY reason for EDGE capability on this phone. And for this you can pay by the kilobyte, or, if you prefer, by the flat rate of $25 a month. Yes, my friends, this is the perfect walled garden device.

Of course, Sony gets a piece of the action, too: you can buy a proprietary data cable - costing about half as much as the phone - and move your data, some of it, anyway, via that means. And while you're at it you'll probably want to pick up a headset, too, as none is provided in the box.

I feel like a complete idiot. Well, of course, I did say, didn't I, that all I wanted was an inexpensive, well made phone with a decent mic and speaker, and good RF. This, to tide me over until I can buy a worthwhile converged device. And the Z500a does meet those minimal requirements. So I guess maybe I'll keep it. Outside of Cingular's walled garden. Kee-rist.

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