With Verizon's iPhone, a rare example of customers getting what they crave

Verizon Wireless will start selling a version of the iPhone 4 in early February, giving U.S. iPhone buyers a choice of carriers for the first time.
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 10:58 PM

Tuesday morning featured a somewhat familiar spectacle in the technology business: consumers finally getting what they wanted.

But this time, the sight of a tech company granting its customers' wishes after a long wait received more notice than usual.

Instead of the standard reception for a smartphone arriving on another wireless carrier - a few stories by trade publications and enthusiast sites - Verizon Wireless's announcement that it would sell a version of Apple's iPhone 4 was greeted with a storm of publicity that included a spot on "The Daily Show."

This was an inordinate level of attention, even factoring in reader interest in anything Apple-related.

But did it go beyond inordinate to insane? Maybe not, when you look at the many other items on tech users' wish lists.

We can be a demanding bunch when it comes to asking for upgrades. Because manufacturers and developers routinely deliver things previously thought impossible - or not even imagined - and make these products better with software and service updates, they've taught us to expect frequent wish fulfillment followed by continuous improvement.

When these companies fail to deliver on that implicit bargain, it becomes all the more maddening.

Here's a rough hierarchy of those tech needs and how enraging it can be to have them go unmet.

At the very bottom come requests to fix a problem in an existing product, most often a security flaw in a program. We shouldn't have to ask vendors to close vulnerabilities that could get our computers hacked, but it happens. A lot. For example, Apple didn't close a security glitch in its Safari browser reported this summer until November. Microsoft took not months but years to address major security issues in its Internet Explorer browser.

You can and should be angry about that sort of delay.

Then come petitions to add a feature to an existing product. Some of the additions we demand should be easy for developers to fulfill and some aren't, but the time they require may bear no correlation to the difficulty of the work involved.

For example, Google didn't add time-zone support to Google Calendar until December, more than 31/2 years after that Web application debuted without this basic capability.

If you think that's irritating, consider what happens when open-source software development - in which anybody can inspect and revise a program's source code, ensuring no one company can hold up progress - also fails to deliver a desired upgrade. The Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail program didn't get a simple, needed feature for its address book until five years after a complaint about it showed up in its bug-tracking database.

We face steeper odds when we ask companies to bring products to new platforms and markets - for example, requesting that a developer write an iPhone version of a popular Android application, or vice versa. That means a great deal more work and risk for the company in question, which has to take potential customers at their word that (a) they exist and (b) they will put down their credit cards when they have an opportunity to do so.

If you're on the other end of the conversation, there's little to do but resent your under-appreciated status, until you give up on waiting and take your business elsewhere.

In many of these situations, we can take action on our own when companies won't. You can add a missing function to a program with a third-party software plug-in or patch, or tinker with undocumented application settings.

Desperate users will go to further extremes, such as "jailbreaking" an iPhone to use it on another service compatible with AT&T's GSM wireless technology or "rooting" an Android phone to get rid of unwanted apps preinstalled by a carrier.

(You don't need to partake in these activities to benefit from them; the efforts of tinkering types can have a powerful effect on companies smart enough to recognize free market research and product testing when they see it.)

But sometimes, there's nothing you can do but beg, plead or cajole, as dispiriting and demoralizing as that gets. That's exactly what happened with the iPhone: Only Apple could bring its smartphone to Verizon, since even a jailbroken AT&T iPhone could not be taught Verizon's incompatible CDMA system.

And yet nothing happened, even as AT&T's issues - from a frequently overloaded network to its failure to support such new iPhone features as multimedia messaging on a timely basis - made the usefulness of a choice of iPhone carriers that much more obvious.

(Yes, some iPhone users have had no problem with AT&T and are happy to testify to that. But in my experience with review iPhones, complaints about AT&T's network seemed well founded: The model I took to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week could most positively be described as "decorative.")

Apple's exclusive arrangement with AT&T dragged on for 31/2 years - about three years longer than many smartphone exclusives - and outlasted numerous predictions of its demise.

But it's over. The wait has ended for all those would-be iPhone buyers. Now the rest of us get a long-awaited upgrade of our own: We no longer have to hear iPhone users go on and on about how they're stuck with one choice for service.

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