Wednesday, August 10, 2011

MetroPCS demonstrates the risks of leapfrog strategies

I was briefly an Android (and MetroPCS) user during the past week, but found the reality of the MetroPCS LTE service (and the Samsung phone) didn’t match the promise.

I got my first digital phone in the late 1990s when I switched from AirTouch to Sprint. I was with Sprint for about 14 years until I quit Sprint in May over high prices and a lousy phone replacement policy. Since late last year I’ve been assuming that I’d switch to MetroPCS (if I were working in San Jose or LA) or Cricket (if I were in San Diego).

I’ve been a particular admirer of MetroPCS, which combined the Cricket (Leap) business model with aggressive price cutting and clever branding to become the 5th largest network owner in the US. (Most importantly, they’ve also pressured the Big Two to be less outrageous in their pricing.) My biggest gripe was their misleading “$40/month” advertising — which (ala Sprint and the other Big Four) is not available to smartphone owners.

When I got the job in LA County I considered the various Android phones on MetroPCS and quickly settled on the Samsung Galaxy Indulge: it was one of their few Android LTE phones, and the only one with a keyboard.

As a result, after settling into my new job and living quarters I decided to give MetroPCS a try. For the past week I was a MetroPCS customer with the Galaxy — until I took it back Tuesday afternoon.

There were several reasons why the reality was worse than the promise.

First, the battery life on the Indulge was truly terrible. The store manager tried to warn me that his friend had problems with the Indulge, but it was even worse than he said. On Monday, I had the phone on in the morning for an hour (with WiFi on), checked email twice and lost half my battery life. Even without making phone calls, there’s no way I’d make it through a whole day. And when I had it plugged into the car adaptor, the phone got very hot — suggesting (as with 2G and 3G) that first generation 4G phones have serious power consumption problems.

The battery life was exacerbated by the need to turn down the screen saver. My most common search experience was the screen went blank (on a 30 second timeout) before I could get the answer to a simple Google search.

But the last straw was the poor LTE coverage. When the phone was in 4G range, it seemed to have good performance. (Other users reported 2.4 mbps, but I never formally measured it). However, it was not in range at my East LA County residence, and at various places on SoCal freeways. It was also (as expected) not in range when roaming to Cricket territory in San Diego. In those cases, it fell back to 1x (which users estimate is under 0.1 mbps).

For me, Metro’s gamble to leapfrog 3G for 4G was a failure, because the price was to fall back to completely useless 2.5G data service. All the other carriers have some sort of 3G coverage which would have been fine for my use case.

In fact, the most useful thing about the exercise was to crystalize my use case for my first post-Treo, post-Symbian smartphone:

  • Email — both gmail and Exchange
  • Traffic maps
  • Web browsing, especially news
  • Google searches
That’s about it. Yes, I installed Urban Spoon and Shazam — and my daughter would want to play Angry Birds — but the phone would be perfectly fine without those.

The one frill I tried was the wonderful new music streaming appYahoo! Music Radio — which is a partnership with Clear Channel and its I would eagerly install and use the player just for one station — LA’s K-Earth Classics (KRTH HD2) — which plays the 60s oldies that the iconic 101.1 used to play until it switched from boomers to Generation Jones and 70s music.

However, using a phone for music streaming requires good battery life (or a handy power adaptor) and an unlimited data plan. A 56K MP3 stream two hours a day on every weekday would use up 800mb/month of a limited download budget. (MetroPCS only allowed 1 gb/month for its $50 plan).

I considered swapping the Indulge for another phone, but it’s their only Android phone that does LTE. The other Android phones also didn’t have physical keyboards, and my one week MetroPCS trial confirmed my suspicion that a physical keyboard is an absolute must for typing without looking at the screen. The company’s weakness in Android phones is (IMHO) the main problem of their recent financial difficulties.

The story had a happy ending, at least for me. The company’s MetroPromise means you can take the phone back for a full refund if you follow their conditions. I did follow the conditions, and got my money back with just a long wait due to an understaffed local dealer.

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