Sunday, March 13, 2005

The cell phone thing Part IV: U.S. vs. Europe

Us Americans tend to blindly think that we're always on the technological cutting edge. But we're just fooling ourselves; more and more often, we're getting left behind as other countries adopt more state-of-the-art technology. Case in point: Cell phone usage. (And, yeah, I know it's a bit contradictory to grumble about the overuse of cell phones, and then complain that ours aren't as good everyone else's. The food here is really bad -- and such small portions!)

Here's what I mean. Check out this great Reuters article by David Lawsky (via Yahoo! News) that compares cell phone usage in the U.S. versus that in Western Europe. The Europeans adopted a single system (GSM) that provides continent-wide coverage, complete with text messaging. The U.S. allowed "the market" to decide, resulting in multiple systems from multiple carriers.

(As an aside, "the market" will be the death of us -- literally, in terms of our "market-driven" health care system. Check out the great article in this week's The New Republic about the business of health care. It's something we have to change.)

Back to cell phones, what is the result of these different approaches to the technology? Europeans have better phones and better service, which inspires wider use by more people. Here in the U.S., our service sucks and not every system works everywhere in the country.

There's also a difference in pricing, in that Europeans are charged by the minute but don't pay for calls received; Americans gravitate towards "all you can eat" one-price plans, but have to pay for all calls and messages they receive. This results in different usage patterns, as you might expect; Europeans are freer to give out their mobile numbers, but also tend to talk less.

Anyway, this just one example of how other parts of the world are surpassing the U.S. in terms of technology. But pointing this out tends to invoke the ire of "patriotic" Americans, with their creed of "America, love it or leave it." Here's the deal: If you really love state-of-the-art technology, you can't love America all that much, or all the time. You have to leave the country to get the latest high-tech stuff. So think on that, Joe Sixpack -- or get used to settling for second best.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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