Wednesday, March 10, 2010

AT&T Exec Randall Stephenson Doesn't Get the iPad

So last week AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson got tech blogs buzzing with an uncharacteristically upbeat and insightful discussion about the future of the iPad. "Apple's iPad is a total game changer and AT&T is determined to be leader in providing services for it. Not just fast and trouble free low cost data access, but we also plan to offer some very exciting must have apps. I can't tell you everything we're working right now, but we see this as a very important enterprise tool and plan to be at the forefront of offering business services that can be delivered on the iPad." Smiling brightly, he continued, "We're also talking to some content providers about special deals for AT&T customers and we're going to offer some free apps that are pretty exciting. We know customers will have a choice between using the iPad on wifi systems or our cellular network and we want to make sure it's worth the extra money for them to buy the more expensive product and sign up for mobile access."

In fact, the speech was so uncharacteristic that he didn't actually say it. I just made all that up. I repeat, he didn't say anything upbeat, optimistic or insightful. He didn't uses words like exciting or "free." He didn't talk about trying to make customers happy or valued. He didn't smile. In fact, he just kind of pissed on the idea that anyone would bother to buy an iPad that could use AT&T. His exact quote was "My expectation is that there's not going to be a lot of people out there looking for another subscription." And then he changed the subject to tiered pricing. Here's Reuter's take on his speech to investors:

Of course, this did get the web buzzing, but not in a good way, more in a "what the fuck is he talking about" kind of way.

What's so stupid about his speech is that even if Mr. Stephenson believes what he says, why the hell say it? Why try to cool expectations of a hot new product that AT&T gets to charge a monthly fee for? And after all the bad press AT&T has gotten lately, how could anyone not wonder if he isn't big on the iPad because AT&T isn't capable of servicing it? Obviously, Mr. Stephenson is focused on cramming tiered pricing down the throats of an unwilling customer base, but can't he take a moment off of that pipe dream to try to pretend to be upbeat about AT&T's newest service? And is it smart to point out that people are already pissed off about how high their iPhone bills are?

It seems more likely Stephenson knows the iPad is going to be big, and that customers are going to be pissed off when they find out that AT&T service is slow and costly. So apparently he wants to cool expectations so he can later blame the public for being stupid enough to sign up for AT&T service. Or perhaps he knows that AT&T's offer of cheap unlimited data with no contract for the iPad completely contradicts his claims that there is a desperate need for tiered pricing, so he wants to try to claim he didn't expect people to actually use the iPad. And apparently he doesn't care much if he's later proven to be wrong, because, after all, he has no problem lying about providing tethering "soon." Oh, and of course, if people actually use the iPad for lots of data access, then why can't iPhone customers have tethering?

Whatever it is, let's take a moment to imagine a fantasy world where the exclusive provider of iPhone and iPad service said something like the stuff I made up at the top of this post. Wouldn't that be nice? Wouldn't it be nice to have an AT&T run by someone who at least pretended to care about his customers? Who could talk about the future without mentioning that he plans to raise rates as soon as the public is "educated" to accept them? That could talk about innovation without saying the government needed to provide financial incentives? Oh, well, we can only dream.

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