Cell Phones and Search Costs

I am one of the unfortunate hundreds of thousands of Verizon customers who eagerly ran out to buy the Motorola v710 Bluetooth phone when it first came out a couple of years ago. (For a short period of time, I could really turn heads with my wireless earpiece—now you look like an antiquarian if you don’t have a Bluetooth headset). It turns out that Verizon disabled all of the most useful Bluetooth features on the phone, and a class action lawsuit ensued, which predictably settled on terms quite beneficial to counsel, but less so to the affected class. The settlement provided several options for Verizon subscribers who had purchased the v710, only one of which had a substantial monetary value—namely, a $200 credit toward a new phone (or whatever the actual price we paid for the phone, assuming we still have receipts).

The settlement period expires at the end of the month, so tonight I finally got around to cashing in on the victory.

I was quickly reminded of how much I hate shopping for cell phone technology. Verizon provides more than a dozen options for cell phones, each of them mediocre in its own different way. (I should also mention that the Verizon Wireless website is, itself, mediocre in many different ways.) Cell phones have been around for long enough that it ought to be fairly mature technology; instead, you have to figure out which annoying shortcoming bothers you the least. The most expensive of the non-Pocket PC models, the Samsung SCH-a630, despite having a 2 megapixel built-in camera, has a lower image quality than the cheaper “LG the V” (better known as the LG VX9800), as well as crippled Bluetooth like the v710.

I ended up settling on “LG the V,” despite its silly name and hefty form factor, because it seems to be the one model that Verizon decided not to cripple Bluetooth on. Apparently, it has complete OBEX support, and works quite well with Linux.

It gets worse shopping for Bluetooth headsets. None of the top headsets recommended by cnet are even offered by Verizon. So instead you’re stuck perusing endless message board postings for threads with names like Which Bluetooth Headset is best for VX9800? trying to figure out which, in fact, is the best Bluetooth Headset for the VX9800. While some aspects of a Bluetooth headset are obviously personal preferences based on, for example, the shape of your earlobe, how often you drive in a convertible with the top down while talking on your cell, and whether you like to wear your headset to bed, I would really appreciate some objective metrics and brand uniformity. There’s no way to predict, for example, whether a particular model of Motorola, Jabra, or Logitech headset will be any good—some seem to be well received, while others have glaring design flaws.

As a trademark lawyer, I’m disappointed by this state of affairs. I’d like to be able to identify a brand that I can trust and just go with it. This is especially true where it’s difficult to evaluate the quality of an item on first inspection (or over the Internet) and it’s an item you’ll keep for at least a while (two or three years for cell equipment). As things stand, there seem to be few real winners, and the search costs are inordinately high. Hopefully the invisible hand will eventually fix this situation, but I’m not going to bet on it.