Needing a token of my years in Waterloo, I figured it was finally time to trade in my Pleistocene Nokia phone for a BlackBerry. So I used some of my startup funds to buy a BlackBerry 8830 World Edition from Verizon. What particularly excited me about this model was that it was advertised as having a built-in GPS receiver — meaning (or so I thought) that I’d be able to pull up Google Maps wherever I was, and never get lost again.
Well, today the phone arrived, and I found out that Verizon has disabled the GPS (see here, here, and here). The reason, apparently, is that at some unknown time in the future, it plans to sell an inferior navigation service for $10/month, and doesn’t want people getting for free what it will later rip them off for.
I’ve been having fun imagining the conversation between Mike Lazaridis (the founder of Research in Motion, the Waterloo-based company that makes BlackBerries) and Verizon:
Lazaridis: It’s an abomination! As long as I draw breath, I’ll never agree to your crippling my invention!
Verizon CEO (breathing heavily): Young Lazaridis, come over to the Dark Side.
Lazaridis (pause): Actually, how much are you offering? I’ve been needing cash, ever since blowing all those millions on the Perimeter Institute and the Institute for Quantum Computing…
Some will say I’m a sucker, buyer beware, etc. The more sympathetic will call me a victim of false advertising — indeed, of the exact sort of corporate behavior that my best friend Alex Halderman and his adviser Ed Felten have battled for years with some spectacular successes.
Recently I attended a talk by the legendary free-software activist Richard Stallman, who thundered like an Old Testament prophet about human beings’ inalienable right to understand, modify, and share the technology they own. At the time I agreed with Stallman intellectually but found him a bit obsessive. Now I have my own dog in this fight.
I’ve always known that American cell phone companies are evil: they have shitty, unreliable networks, enormous advertising budgets, and miniscule R&D budgets. But Verizon has taken things to a level even I wouldn’t have predicted.
We’re not living in anything close to the efficient market dreamed of by my economist friends like Robin Hanson. The invisible hand has palsy and four missing fingers. And the proof is that, when a company like Verizon pulls a Monty Burns, there’s almost no risk it runs — almost nothing it fears. Indeed, about the only risk it does run is that some of its customers might have blogs — and that some of the savvier readers of those blogs might figure out how to hack the crippled phones and share that information with the world…