Fat little phone finds a niche

Telecom's new Apache smartphone could be the answer to an age-old problem

Telecom sent me one of its new Apache smartphones to test and rarely have I been so disappointed in a new toy.

I’d had the Harrier, the earlier iteration, which was gorgeous with its big screen and slide out keyboard. I really liked the look of the Apache because the keyboard slides out of the side rather than the bottom of the phone and to me that made a lot more sense. Given how cool the Harrier was, the Apache was bound to be even better, I thought.

When it arrived a small crowd had gathered, drawn no doubt by my excited squealing noise. Oh how they laughed when I pulled it out of its box. “It’s a joke phone,” cried one heartless wag and indeed, the Apache does look like a water pistol in disguise from Geoff’s Emporium.

It’s thick, in a bulky kind of way. The plastic case feels cheap compared with the Harrier’s silky carapace. It’s also quite heavy.

But, initial disappointment aside, once I started using the Apache I realised it kicks the Harrier squarely in the pants and steals its lunch money. Why? One simple reason: wi-fi. While the phone itself might be a tad clumsy, it is about as connected as a single device can be. Not only does it roam happily from Telecom’s T3G network running EV-DO to the slower 1xRTT technology when it needs to but it also comes equipped with Bluetooth and wi-fi.

Having used the Apache for a while it’s dawned on me that Telecom has on its hands a solution to a problem that’s bugged the incumbent since the introduction of its mobile phone service: international roaming.

Vodafone makes a big thing about its ability to offer service in any one of dozens of countries around the world. Take your own handset, the ads cry, and travel abroad wherever you like. You can’t do that with a Telecom phone because so few countries have gone down the EV-DO path. It’s a sore point and one that Telecom tries to gloss over by pointing out that few people actually do roam very much.

However, by offering wi-fi capability built into the handset there’s nothing to stop Telecom offering travellers a voice over IP solution.

Sure, it’s not quite the same as being able to arrive at a destination and simply fire up the old Nokia, but it does get Telecom into the global roaming game and it gives Telecom customers a huge advantage in another rather interesting area: price.

International roaming is about as expensive as you can get without simply giving the telcos the right to print their own money. Voice calls from Europe or the US are astronomical and you have to put up with the foolish tromboning effect whereby calls are routed via New Zealand, something that always makes me want to shout “over” after I finish talking. Don’t even bother with international data calls — it should be illegal to charge that much.

VoIP calls over the public internet are definitely of a lesser quality than your typical cellphone call, but when you’re paying nothing per minute (if you’re lucky enough to find a free public hotspot) then really, who cares? Travellers can arrive at their destination, set up their phones to forward everything to the VoIP service provider of their choice, be it a Skype or Telecom-owned service or whatever, and then order their latte, happy in the knowledge they’re still connected and at a fraction of the cost of normal mobile roaming.

Telecom clearly has ambitions in the wireless space. It’s busy rolling out the next tranche of wi-fi hotspots around the country, is trying to buy some of Wired Country’s WiMax-ready spectrum and is winning the mobile phone war in New Zealand.

By combining its strategies it could offer customers a better service without cannibalising an existing revenue stream and, potentially, win customers off its main competitor.

Not bad for a fat little phone that looks like it came from the $2 shop.

Brislen is Editor of Computerworld

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