Monday, November 29, 2010

A tale of two commodities: Android and discount CDMA carriers

It’s no secret that Qualcomm has played a major role in getting Android off the ground — going back to the public launch of Android in 2007 — and has been rewarded handsomely for its aggressive bet.

The goal of Android is to make smartphones a commodity, and in the US it’s been quite successful. By supporting Android, carriers hoped that it would spur adoption of wireless data plans, even at the risk of making them a commodity.

Thus it was surprising to discover this weekend that two of the US cellular carriers most responsible for commoditizing voice service — Leap (Cricket) and MetroPCS — have very different Android strategies. The two are so similar in strategies (including their use of CDMA) that there have been repeated calls for them to merge despite Leap’s repeated rejection of the MetroPCS advances.

Like other San Diego companies with ties to Qualcomm, Leap has been aggressive in supporting and promoting Android. In March it became the first discount carrier to announce an Android handset, the Kyocera Zio. Its website is promoting its second Android handset from Huawei, and it even has billboards around San Diego announcing $55 for its Android smartphone unlimited voice/text/data plan.

Meanwhile, MetroPCS launched its first Android phone last Wednesday, from LG. However, you wouldn’t know it from visiting the website unless you tried hard to find the (one) Android phone among its offerings.

Still, MetroPCS is a little more aggressive on the pricing: $50/month (vs. $55 + fees for Cricket and $80 + fees for Sprint). MetroPCS has often started price wars in the cellphone industry, so this may put pressure on the other carriers to cut their prices. Also, as one of the top five global carriers, LG has a better brand than Kyocera or Huawei (even if it doesn’t quite match Samsung or Motorola in the US).

Interestingly, when I was researching this blog posting, MetroPCS asked me to take a survey about future purchases, which focused on smartphones but also asked about tablets and WiFi hotspots (like MiFi). They even asked about the iPhone, even though the availability of a premium iPhone on a discount carrier seems a long way off.

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