Taming your tech
The simple approach to taking the bite out of unfriendly devices
So you'd be less likely to bother with that hip feature, and that's forcing wireless carriers to get creative about how to sell these new services without sacrificing friendliness. Traditionally, manufacturers like Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola designed phones and the software that made them work, then sold them to wireless carriers like Verizon, Sprint, and Nextel. Now Verizon has designed its own software for cellphones--and will offer customers only the models that run it. The upside to this trend is that a new Verizon phone will hold fewer surprises for current customers, and that familiarity should cut down on support calls and canceled accounts, says Lowell McAdam, the company's chief operating officer.
Stifling. Carriers still must overcome the reluctance of handset makers, who worry that standardized software will stifle their innovation. But "when you buy 21 million handsets a year, they tend to support your initiatives," McAdam says. Verizon also is slower to adopt some of the latest handsets, saying it's more focused on making sure phones work on its network.
That insistence reinforces Verizon's much-advertised "Can you hear me now?" claim to be the most reliable wireless system, which is largely substantiated by independent surveys run by outfits like Consumer Reports magazine. As smug as those commercials may be, they nail another tech frustration: In addition to being overcomplicated, products are often undependable.
Verizon's emphasis on a reliable network illustrates what it takes to ensure gadgets work in real-life conditions. That geek walking in the company's ads actually drives a white Chevy TrailBlazer, at least in St. Louis. Soft-spoken and taciturn, engineer Jerry Wildermuth is one of about 60 people who regularly test Verizon's system. He spends about three of every four weeks alone in his truck, with two metal boxes in the back that hold 14 handsets. Special setups have the phones dialing all day, most connecting and disconnecting for brief, nonsensical conversations like: "These days, the chicken leg is a rare dish." and "A saw is a tool for making boards." Two laptops monitor the signal strengths of Verizon and its competitors, scoring voice chats on a scale of 1 to 5. In customer satisfaction surveys, Verizon usually rates at least incrementally better than its competitors. But consumers also grade wireless carriers as a group 39th among 40 industries in customer satisfaction, according to a University of Michigan survey. Nonetheless, Verizon is able to charge more for its service and still gain customers.
Mac attack. Apple Computer, whose desktop PC s have long been more elegant than anything in the Windows world, also has charged more--while steadily losing market share, now at about 2 percent of new computers sold. In a user-friendly move, Apple has recently made it easier to switch to a Mac, having introduced a model that costs as little as $500 if it's replacing a Windows computer. And Macs would seem a good choice for many home users--especially those frustrated with hacker-vulnerable and harder-to-use Windows PC s. "Apple tends to minimize the number of steps to do things and is more consistent than Windows," says John Rizzo, an author of books on both Windows and Macs. (Macs aren't perfect: Rizzo's latest book is Mac Annoyances .) But it's tough to overcome Microsoft's market dominance and the perception that Windows PC s can do more while costing less.