Friday, November 20, 2009

Why AT&T isn't Apple: MSS Messaging Just Got More Expensive

Apple unquestionably made a deal with the devil when it signed on for AT&T to be the exclusive carrier for the iPhone. At the time, it really didn't have much of a choice. Making an exclusive deal with one of the major carriers was probably was the only way to get on the market and probably got them a better deal for what might have turned out to be a limited market product. (Of course, now it's the top selling smartphone by far.) Steven Jobs said at the time, and it made sense, that an exclusive deal was the only way to get the software and hardware properly integrated for things like random access to voice messaging. This is probably one of the reasons the launch of the iPhone was pretty smooth and customer satisfaction is so high.

Of course, the downside of this was that Apple had to play by at least some of AT&T's rules, and certain compromises were made. The one area where I suspect Apple put it's foot down was one flat rate unlimited data access to the internet. AT&T probably would have preferred to have a sliding scale, charging more for more use, because that's the way annoying way the company likes to do everything.

One of the areas where Apple caved in was in MSS messaging. AT&T not only charges an absurd rate for sending the cheapest and easiest data, 20 cents per 160 character MSS message, but on the last iPhone upgrade insisted that its customers pay a minimum of $20 a month (on top of their regular bill) for the honor. Oh, and if you don't agree in advance to the charge, the service is turned off so you can't get the messages if you suddenly change your mind. The contempt for the customer of this charge, for something that should basically be free, is so infuriating that I momentarily considered not upgrading my iPhone. I caved in at the last minute, but I spend every waking hour plotting to find a free alternative (Twitter anyone? Push e-mail?) to convince all my friends to switch over to. (Just a note, it's not only 20 cents to send a message, it costs 20 cents to the person getting it. That's a double rip for messages that were originally 10 cents back in the day when it was more expensive to send them.)

But since I'm paying out the 20 bucks a month anyway, and the 40 cents total per message to me and my buddies, my eye was caught by the announcement on AT&T's webpage that you can now send pictures and video through MSS. Now there's other free ways to upload pictures and video from your phone for friends to check out, but it's nice that AT&T has finally caught up with a little free upgrade to it's outdated MSS service…

Oh, but it isn't free. You see, AT&T wants more money. More money, more money, more money. 20 cents for a message isn't enough. If you want to send a picture or video, it's 30 cents. Here's the link:

Now, really, AT&T, are you that cheap? Are you that crazy? You're going to charge me $20 a month for a service that has numerous free alternatives (blackmailing me to prepay or not have access) and then charge anyone I'm foolish enough to send a the message to 20 cents for the privilege. And now you want 30 cents for sender and receiver?

MSS messaging is the land line of the digital age. It's a carry over from the early days of data communication. It's on it's way out. It's going the way of the dinosaur. Apple knew that, and allowed AT&T to rip some extra money from the less digitally savy and the lazy. AT&T got to keep charging an arm and a leg for something that now cost virtually nothing. Then AT&T got greedy and upped the stakes by forcing people to prepay monthly. Okay, keep your blood money, it was worth it for a flat rate for internet access.

But now, you want to make even more money off this outdated overpriced service? You're going to charge extra for pictures and video? Are you trying to insult us? (Obviously, there is no technical reason for this extra charge. The amount of actual data in a photo is a hundred times greater than a 160 character text message and a video is thousands of times greater than a photo. So the extra 10 cents has no relation to reality, it's just what AT&T figures people won't gripe too much about. Charging 30 cents for a picture just makes it even more crazy to be charging 20 cents for 160 characters of text.)

Politically, this is a huge mistake. The overpricing of MSS messaging is something that already is on customers, consumer groups and even Congress's greedy telecom gripe list. Why not offer pictures for the same price? Why not keep MSS messaging somewhat relevant in the future, rather than hastening it's demise, or risking government interference.

Now, I can see how some out of touch money crunchers at AT&T might think this is an issue of charging a little more for a new feature, just like they love to charge extra for any other feature they can think of. But what they don't understand is that people hate being nickeled and dimed like this. The internet never would have taken off so fast and so wide if there hadn't been fixed monthly pricing. If every new feature on the internet was an additional cost, it simply never would have grown into what it has.

The fact that there are so many free apps available for the iPhone is the reason people are willing to pay for SOME OF THEM. If every app cost money, the whole thing would have probably died in the cradle and if every app had a monthly charge, people would be tossing their iPhone's in the trash. Apple understood this and made sure there were free apps from the get go.

AT&T should be grateful it has this little annoying MSS cash cow attached to such a great phone that offers so many other features for one flat rate. It should either shut up, keep it's head low and milk it while it lasts, or lower it's price to something reasonable ($10 a month and 10 cents a message). For it to get greedy and try to think of ways to charge even more for it, is simply crazy.

If AT&T was smart, it would continually improve and add free features to MSS just to keep people paying that $20 bucks a month without bitching. Let anyone with the feature send pictures and video to a website for free. Connect it with Twitter for free. Let them get free coupons over MSS for discounts, etc. MSS could actually be turned into an WWW internet alternative (just like iTunes) for a base $20 a month. Why not let people send music clips over it free, or whatever?

The iPhone won't be exclusive to AT&T forever. Even if Apple doesn't insist on becoming non-exclusive, the way AT&T is going customers and the government will force the issue. So why can't AT&T see that it has a unique opportunity to create loyal customers and to build a technology base to compete into the future? Why rip off your customers so they are ready to flee the second they have a chance? Why not use this exclusive time to build good will?

Instead, AT&T is looking to make an extra dime anytime you want to send a picture of your kitten to grandma. Shame on you AT&T! And I'm not kidding.

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