Confessions of a cell phone junkie

Sure, network quality matters. But consumers are making cool phones a top priority when deciding on a cellular plan. Photos: Phones that sing

Jeffrey Gordon is a cell phone addict, spending nearly $2,000 over the past year and a half to fuel what seems like an insatiable urge to have the latest and greatest in cellular technology.

Since May of 2005, he has switched carriers twice just to get the phone he wanted. First, he dumped Sprint Nextel for Cingular Wireless so he could get the , a small candybar-style smart phone running the Windows Mobile operating system.

Popular cell phones

Less than a year later, he jumped to T-Mobile to get his hands on the JasJar QTEK 9000. This foreign phone came equipped with high-end screen resolution, video calling, a Qwerty keyboard, stereo external speakers, 3G and Wi-Fi capability, and Bluetooth wireless.

The new phone cost the New York City resident $929 plus the $160 fee to break his contract with Cingular.

Four months later, the bug hit him again when a smaller, sleeker foreign phone hit the market called the HTC Prophet (aka the i-mate JAMin). It cost $575. Again, the price didn't matter to Gordon. But this time he was already a T-Mobile customer, so he didn't have to jump carriers. He bought the new phone the first day it went on sale.

"My girlfriend is furious at me for spending so much money on phones," the 27-year-old Gordon wrote in an e-mail. "Am I an addict? Yes, and I love it. This is phone geek lust in its purest form."

For many people, cell phones have become an essential accessory that expresses who they are. Some, like Gordon, want the latest and greatest technology. Others, like the millions of consumers who went nuts for Motorola's ultrathin Razr phones, want the hippest designs.

But how many consumers are actually ? Analysts say the number of people who would switch providers and eat the cost of breaking contracts to get a cool new phone is relatively small. Still, a phone's design and features are becoming important factors in deciding to stay with a carrier once a contract expires.

"Historically in the U.S. market, phones haven't played a big factor in a customer's decision to subscribe to a certain service," said Iain Gillott, an analyst with iGillott Research. "But it's becoming a consideration. Still, the main reason consumers choose an operator is usually network coverage, reliability and price."

"If you want the coolest phones, but don't have a great network, you might as well go to a toy store and pick up a plastic phone."
--Jeffrey Nelson, Verizon Wireless spokesman

According to a survey conducted by The Yankee Group in April 2006, 20 percent of respondents indicated that network quality was the most important factor in determining which provider they chose when purchasing their plans. Only 3 percent said the model of mobile phone offered by the carrier influenced their purchasing decision.

But when consumers were asked what would keep them loyal to their current provider, 28 percent said more frequent handset upgrades would prevent them from jumping ship.

"While the phone may not be the main reason a consumer chooses a carrier's service, once they are with a particular carrier they want the opportunity to get better handsets more frequently," said Linda Barrabee, an analyst with The Yankee Group. "And if they don't get what they want, they can look elsewhere when the contract expires."

That's exactly what John Papadopoulos, a 25-year-old sales associate in Boston, is doing. Papadopoulos, who has been a Verizon Wireless customer since 1999, said he plans to switch to Cingular in November when his contract expires so he can get the , a small, slim phone he says has all the "fixin's" including a camera and MP3 music player. The phone Papadopoulos uses now is the , a 2-year-old model that he says is too big and renders poor picture quality with its built-in camera.

Papadopoulos, who said he is perfectly happy with the quality of Verizon's network, could get a new phone when his contract runs out. But he said even the new , which has many of the same features as the Samsung phone from Cingular, is too bulky for his taste.

"I want something that can fit in my pocket so it's not uncomfortable or noticeable," he said. "It just seems like Verizon has a policy to sell the ugliest, most nonfunctional phones."

 

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