If you look outside your window over the next few days and see a mushroom cloud blooming on the eastern horizon, all I can say is, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause an international incident or the destruction of Western civilization. I just wanted to look at some cool cell phones.
Translation: I am writing this from Seoul, South Korea, where I've spent the last few days touring the myriad facilities of electronics giant Samsung and, incidentally, looking into the future of mobile communications. There's also a tour of the DMZ on the schedule; somebody somewhere thinks it's a good idea to let me wander near and possibly over the border with North Korea. Let's just hope Kim Jong Il is taking a nap when it happens.
You may not be aware of it, but South Korea is to the wireless industry what Ashton Kutcher is to inane Twittering. Between them, Samsung and its bitter South Korean rival, LG Electronics, build nearly half of the handsets sold worldwide. They certainly build the vast majority of the really amazing ones.
iPhone, shmyphone -- these guys lapped Apple 10 times before breakfast. Samsung in particular is pushing the envelope on what handsets are capable of. Want a 12-megapixel camera? Check. Full-motion HD? Got it. Bang & Olufsen speakers? No sweat. The whizziest gesture-based haptics-driven touch-screen interface you've ever seen? Natch.
Unless, of course, you want all this cool stuff in the U.S.A. In that case, you do have a problem, and it can be summed up in four words: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.
The primary reason the most cutting-edge handsets almost always hit the United States last (often minus some of their groovier features) is the stranglehold the big four telecom carriers have on the U.S. market. They control the horizontal and the vertical. They determine what feature sets the phones have, down to the last widget. And they take their sweet time about it.
Meanwhile, Samsung, et al, are already working on what's next: fourth-generation, super-high-speed mobile broadband services. Imagine riding the subway at 60 mph under the streets of Seoul streaming ESPN sports highlights to a netbook at 4mbps. I don't have to imagine it, because I did it, using a WiMax connection from Korea Telecom and a Samsung WiBro-powered (WiMax Broadband) netbook.
Granted, WiBro is a stupid name. Even in Seoul, access to the WiMax network is limited and speeds can vary wildly, depending on how far you are from the nearest WiMax base station. But it's a glimpse of what's possible when a telecom and a technology innovator work together: fast Internet access available anywhere at any time.
In the United States, WiMax is available from Clearwire but only in very limited test markets: Baltimore, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and a handful of smaller ones. So far, it doesn't look promising -- some of its customers are threatening a class-action suit for poor service. Meanwhile, the telecoms are still struggling with 3G and arguing over whether WiMax or a competing technology, LTE, will ultimately define what 4G becomes.
Given how painfully slowly many of these same players deployed landline broadband over the last decade, I don't hold out much hope they will get their mobile act together very soon, if at all.
PC Mag editor Lance Ulanoff, who was sitting across from me on that Seoul subway ride, sums it up nicely:
I doubt U.S. consumers even understand the mess they're facing. Unlike South Korea, which seems to have settled on one type of 4G for its most populous city, the U.S. will have two options that are both claiming to be the fastest. That's a shame. Now would be a good time for consumers to simply say no: "We don't want competing platforms. Instead, give us one flavor of 4G and competing devices and service offerings. Most of us will be using 4G with our laptops and we won't switch them as readily as we do our phones. But we might switch carriers if we get a better deal or any perks. If we end up with competing platforms, that'll be impossible."
Will we be a second-class nation when it comes to mobile broadband? It's entirely possible. Unless, of course, the world ends in the next few days. In which case, it's been nice knowing you.
Tired of the telecoms? Longing for a superfast mobile Net connection? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.