How an AT&T smartphone comes to life  

Brad Molen at Engadget has written an awesome article about the inner workings of how AT&T brings phones to the market:

The RFP [request for proposal] cycle encompasses the full genesis of the device. It begins with the creation of a formal document that lists the various traits and features AT&T desires. Since it takes so long to crank out a phone, the company needs to predict what the market’s going to look like over a year in advance. This means our friends Dante and Chris have to ask themselves a few questions to hone their forecasting skills. What will be considered state of the art by then? How can we offer a truly groundbreaking product at that time? What will be on the low-end? What are customers going to want their phones to do? Answering these questions isn’t easy, which is why AT&T has an advanced planning group that looks into all of the chipsets, displays and other components on the horizon.

The amazing thing here is that AT&T actually employs bureaucrats who drive the product development of their suppliers. When AT&T wants to sell a new “differentiated” phone – that is, one with another stupid gimmick – they formally request that it be built by one of their manufacturers. Then, astonishingly, the phone makers actually comply with these ridiculous requests, and they build the phones. When you think about the implications of this process, you realize that AT&T’s product managers are basically acting as phone designers by proxy.

At no point in the process does anyone think about a holistic customer experience, and that is why there is none. Although they deny it, AT&T is mostly interested in the point of sale (“your wife will love the Dual Core Tegra 2 Chipset!”) and maintaining a minimum level of quality that will keep the customer decently happy through the contract period. The manufacturer is interested in maximizing hardware profit. Google is interested in having Android on as many devices as possible. From a user perspective, there is only a fragmented design strategy; all of these stakeholders ostensibly care about user experience, but when given power in isolation, their products fall short.

When you put all of these pieces together, a phone like the “Motorola Atrix 4G LTE” is an amalgamation six or seven mediocre pieces of an isolated user experience, from as many different companies.

Anyway, if you haven’t been in an AT&T or Verizon store recently, step inside next time you’re nearby one. Within twenty seconds, you can point to every hardware gimmick that “AT&T desires” on every phone in the entire store, except one.

 
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