AT&T: Reality Distortion Field Kryptonite

On stage at the D8 conference, Steve Jobs eloquently shared a thought. According to Jobs, had the iPhone debuted on any cellular network, not just AT&T’s, any network would have struggled just like AT&T’s has. I’m calling bullshit.

Long before Cingular turned into The New AT&T, their network was among the worst in the nation. Literally, Cingular and AT&T were both known for having piss-poor reception across the board. Back around 2002 or so, we were dealing with the same dropped calls and the same terrible connectivity. Believe it or not, nearly a decade ago non-Verizon customers were having the same issues they’re having today.

Cingular was a smaller company, fresh on the scene. AT&T on the other hand is an old, reptilian company who’s roots date back over a century. That they folded into each other didn’t make much of an impact on the market at all. Their network technologies aligned, and it didn’t take much effort for either company. Slap a couple of new logos on some billboards, run some new commercials. Done. Their goal was to combine subscription numbers in the hopes of surpassing Verizon. Never was it to build a solid cellular network.

Back in January 2007, when Steve Jobs announced that the iPhone would ship with Cingular (soon to be AT&T) as its exclusive carrier in the USA, people weren’t thrilled. They knew what to expect. (If you watch the original January 2007 Macworld iPhone keynote speech, you can feel a sting when Jobs announces Cingular as the only carrier). However, because of the mind-blowing technology and the reality-distortion field, the general consensus went something like this — “Yes, we know Cingular/AT&T is a disaster, but did you see what was just announced? I NEED that phone!”

A few years ago, complaining about the iPhone’s carrier wasn’t an issue – people just wanted the phone.

Many people seemed to immediately forget why we need choices between carriers. Between January and the months leading up to the original iPhone’s release in June 2007, AT&T’s terrible network slipped under the radar. Not long after people started getting their hands on the device, jokes about not being able to make a call on the greatest cell phone ever, started popping up. When other mobile handset makers started flocking to copy the iPhone’s features, some of the must-have dependency was lost due to less-than-quality competing devices. Still, AT&T never cared, and still doesn’t seem to care, that the second everyone can leave their network (and keep their iPhone), we will.

Before the iPhone made its debut, Cingular’s move towards becoming AT&T Wireless was all but secured. All the executives knew about it. In AT&T’s eyes, it was a perfect way to mask the terrible and failing network by taking a risk on Steve Jobs. Wow, what a gamble. Doesn’t seem like the risk factor was very high on that one. Apple wanted to reinvent the mobile phone, Jobs was at the top of his game. Really, how hard of a decision was this for AT&T’s top brass?

This is what bothers me most about this whole ordeal. I’d wager that a vast majority of iPhone users would happily (and eagerly) switch to Verizon the second the option was made available. I know I would.

It’s clear that Jobs can’t go around saying, “We wish we could be on Verizon too, AT&T just isn’t cutting it.” That wouldn’t be very Jobs-esque, it’d be revealing, and it would paint Apple’s current (American) network partners in a negative light. However, by saying that he believes any network would suffer like AT&T’s has (when bum-rushed with millions of iPhones), he’s letting them off the hook way too easy.

AT&T’s executives are number chasers. It costs less for them to let their shitty network continue sucking, then it would for them to invest in building it out to actually perform like it should. Like any good executive would say, just look at the numbers.

Between 2004 and 2006 I was a proud Verizon customer. I carried a Palm Treo. These were days before the iPhone was available. While I don’t miss the phones or the features, I sure do miss the rock-solid service that I happily paid for. I’m sure I dropped a call here or there, but I can’t remember a single one.

With AT&T, even after all this time, I still can’t help but feel like I’m getting ripped off. I’m talking about copious amounts of dropped calls, missed messages, delayed voicemails. They waited for ages with tethering, treated Skype and VoIP like a poison, were late with MMS. They charge far too much for all data usage, iPhone and iPad. Plans and contracts change on the fly, just like their Early Termination Fee which they raised from $175 to $325 on June 1st. Here in the states, most large telecom companies suck, but AT&T takes the cake.

Why is Jobs defending these people and their networks on stage? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for Steve’s reality distortion field. But when it comes to AT&T, I’m calling bullshit. AT&T is like the kryptonite to Steve’s reality distortion field. Hell, Jobs and his mind control could probably persuade me against Google-esque synching services for my Apple products and media, but I think we both want that.

The only thing that can breakdown the reality distortion field is a simple utter of their name — AT&T.

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