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Why is U.S. always last in line for new phones?

For U.S. gadget lovers, this week has been pretty much torment.  We’ve been watching the enormous 3GSM tradeshow in Barcelona where the latest and greatest mobile phone gadgetry is paraded before the international press.

For U.S. gadget lovers, this week has been pretty much torment.  We’ve been watching the enormous 3GSM tradeshow in Barcelona — the Consumer Electronics Show of the worldwide cell phone industry — where the latest and greatest mobile phone gadgetry is paraded before the international press.

Why is it torment?  Because much of the hottest new equipment won’t be available in the United States anytime soon, if ever.  In an unusual turnabout, we Americans have our noses pressed against the shop window of the future, admiring technology we can only dream of owning.

What are we missing?  Just one example in Barcelona this week was the Samsung Ultra Smart F700, a sleek elegant black phone with a high-resolution color touchscreen, slide-out keyboard, a 5-megabyte auto-focus camera, all operating on an ultra-high-speed wireless network that will download a 4-megabyte MP3 song in four seconds.  The Ultra Smart F700 looks as cool as Apple’s upcoming iPhone — and actually does more. But we’re not going to see it in the U.S. for a long time to come: For starters, we don’t even have a network it will run on.

Networks, as it develops, are only one of several reasons for the U.S.’s sluggishness in mobile telephony. But it’s probably the root of the problem. Early on, most of the world decided to all use the same technical standard — GSM — for their mobile phones.  In many countries, the government actually enforced that decision. In the U.S., on the other hand, free enterprise ruled and multiple standards competed, with GSM initially only a small part of the market.

By now there are upwards of 2 billion GSM users worldwide; the fragmented U.S. market is only a small percentage of that. So when the big handset manufacturers roll out a great new product, whom will they serve first? Certainly not that divided market over in the States. Even the all-American Apple iPhone uses the global GSM standard, which could initially restrict its market in the United States (it won’t run on Verizon or Sprint networks) but will open up a large market overseas.

Another example of our tardiness is text messaging.  By now SMS (for short messaging service) is part of European and Asian life: you can pay bills, gamble, bid in auctions, and get every kind of information (including legal notices) via SMS; the first novel has already been written via SMS. The competitive streak in the U.S. kept text messaging from catching on — initially, if you were a Verizon user, say, you could only text to other Verizon subscribers. Only recently have Americans been able to send text messages between different carriers.  In Europe they’ve not only been able to do that for years, but they can even text between countries.

U.S. consumer behavior put another brake on cell phone evolution: since we were far ahead in personal computer adoption, we had less need to use our mobile phones for anything but conversation. In other countries, where personal computer penetration was lower (or at-home online access more expensive) consumers quickly figured out that cell phones could do much more than simply voice.  For many Japanese, for example, the mobile phone remains their only form of Internet access.  At one time, of course, that was rather clumsy and difficult, and we Americans felt sorry for them.  Now, however, it’s no longer clumsy, but cool and the Japanese are far down the road to cell phone nirvana, with rock-solid video on their handsets (plus DVR capabilities) and a mobile e-commerce system that may someday replace credit cards and ATMs.

The U.S. may finally be moving out of the cell phone Dark Ages. For starters, high-speed cell phone networks — generically called 3G — are finally rolling out across the U.S., with the four major carriers promising that by the end of this year, about 85 percent of the U.S. will be able to surf the Web at speeds approaching that of home DSL (assuming customers are willing to pony up for the new services).  But there may also be some price competition to keep those services affordable: this year, a new technology service called WiMAX will appear, initially from Sprint and a start-up called Clearwire.  WiMAX will provide an alternative form of high speed wireless connection. At the Barcelona show, Sprint showed several new WiMAX phones made by Samsung that had powerful Web-browsing features. All those new networks will let U.S. carriers start providing the services that Europeans and Asian users now take for granted.

But that’s not all.  Another kind of new signal is coming to U.S. cell phones this year: direct broadcast television.  That takes a bit of explanation.  There is already some video available on existing cell phone networks, but the quality of the images tends to be variable and is sometimes quite choppy — more like watching a slide show than video.  What the Asians and Europeans have learned is that video works best when it’s transmitted as a separate signal — in a sense, a step back to the way old-fashioned television is sent, as a single broadcast that reaches many receivers.

In the U.S., Verizon will be the first to introduce this new television service later this year, and in Barcelona AT&T announced they will do the same.  The good news is that unlike the early days of the U.S. cell phone market, both carriers will actually use the same technology, which should make a bigger market for cool handsets.  The bad news is that, once again, the Americans have chosen a form of mobile TV broadcast that’s different than the one most of the rest of the world has adopted, so it could be a bit like the GSM situation revisited.

If all that sounds a bit confusing, it is, and in the end that’s the central cause of the American mobile malaise.  While choice is generally a good thing, it has unquestionably slowed progress.  There’s some optimism that as the cell phone industry moves toward the next level of service — 4G — U.S. carriers may begin to converge on network standards.  Or perhaps rugged American individualism will once again reject the route of compromise.  In any event, don’t put down a deposit on that Samsung Ultra Smart quite yet.