The world is flat — except when it comes to getting a cellphone.
The strict geographic borders of the mobile industry often keep enthusiasts from their dream phones. In much of the world, carriers dictate what models their networks will support. Handset makers have some say too, customizing certain phones for various vendors.
But consumers? Exactly what cellphone you can choose depends on where you live.
The rules have created a group of sought-after phones that U.S. consumers want, but can't get. "There's more demand to bring a foreign phone here than vice versa," says Bill Ho, senior analyst of wireless services at Current Analysis.
Every handset maker has a few dream phones that it only offers outside of U.S. boundaries. For Samsung, it's a luxury model designed by Giorgio Armani, which Samsung is slated to launch in late November. About the size of a credit card with a sleek touch screen, the phone reflects the designer's refined aesthetic. When it comes out, look for it in major European countries —but not in the U.S.
Motorola has two lust-worthy phones not sold in the U.S.: the MOTORIZR Z8, which has an ergonomic slider design and a large display for watching videos, and is mostly sold in Europe; and the MING, a stylish clamshell phone with a dual-language "talking" dictionary. Motorola says the MING is a best seller in Asia, its primary territory.
From Nokia, it's a toss-up between its high-end 8800 Sirocco, which features ring tones composed by Brian Eno, and can be covered in 18-karat gold plate, and the 5500 Sport, which can track speed, distance and calories burned, and even read your text messages aloud. Both are available throughout much of the world, except the Americas.
Sony Ericsson has a Walkman phone that can shuffle music with a flick of the wrist. LG has a phone with a five-mega pixel camera (the Viewty) and speedy smart phone that resembles the iPhone (the KS20). RIM has a Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerry Pearl that's a hit in the U.K. HTC's Touch Cruise, a smart phone with a touch screen and built-in global positioning satellite data, is currently available only in Europe. None of those are destined for the U.S. market anytime soon.
It's enough to drive gadget geeks crazy. "You just don't get very good choices of cool phones here," laments Ty Liotta, senior merchandiser for ThinkGeek.com, an online store that specializes in importing tech-oriented gadgets. "Given my options, I would almost choose the carrier over the phone."
For just a few months of this year, there was one cool phone available primarily to U.S. customers — Apple's iPhone.
Soon after its June launch, the handset became a black market staple with more than 1,000 available at a time on eBay. People abroad hankered for the device, even though it wasn't cleared to work on their local service networks. Though the iPhone has since debuted in England and Germany and is rumored to be headed to China, there are plenty of people in places like Russia who want, but can't get, the device, says Ho. A new Apple rule that limits U.S. iPhone purchases to two per person and requires payment by credit or debit card could chill the iPhone reseller's export market.
There is at least one other promising phone launch in the offing that could stir up a little envy from international callers. Analysts are touting LG's Voyager, which combines a large touch screen with a full keyboard in a clamshell design, as an iPhone killer. It goes on sale next week in the U.S. for $299.99, making it $100 cheaper than the iPhone, despite some extra features, like mobile TV.
The catch? The phone runs on CDMA. Though one of the two major wireless technologies in the U.S., the standard isn’t used widely abroad. (Exceptions are Israel and South Korea.) "You could take it to Europe, but it would basically be a very nice paperweight," says Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis.
For those willing to wait, there's always hope. Some models never slated for U.S. distribution are brought over after proving themselves overseas. Verizon recently picked up Samsung's Juke, a svelte, swiveling music phone, after a similar version, the SGH-x830, became a best seller abroad.
Superfans always find a way around the rules, anyway. Despite varying frequencies and standards for phones and networks around the world, the number of phones that can cross borders is growing. So-called "quad-band" phones support all four major frequency bands for GSM, the most prevalent cellphone standard worldwide. Phones built for overseas networks that run on GSM can usually work on AT&T and T-Mobile's U.S. networks, once their portable memory chip, or SIM, card has been swapped out. (Quad-band phones from different regions may not use the same technology for accessing the Web and e-mail, though, so customers should check phone frequencies before buying.)
Fully "unlocking" such phones so that they can do messaging and Internet browsing requires changing some settings — a trick that can be done with advice from the Web or for a fee at independent phone shops or sometimes through the handset's manufacturer. Carriers say such swapping can cause customer service headaches, but they don't actively discourage the practice (except for the Apple iPhone).
That's good news for early adopters like Liotta. He says he's content with his iPhone, but previously preferred to buy devices from Europe and unlock them. Says Ho, "There's always going to be an allure in having a phone that's hyped and specifically not available here."