T-Mobile CEO: Fiery words on Amazon's Fire Phone and more

He's underwhelmed by the Amazon phone, but T-Mobile's John Legere tells CNET his customers should eventually get a chance to buy it. Oh, and about that "rated R vocabulary."

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T-Mobile CEO John Legere at the company's Uncarrier event. James Martin/CNET

SEATTLE -- A few hours after Amazon unveiled the Fire Phone, I sat down with T-Mobile CEO John Legere, just ahead of his own crosstown "Uncarrier" event.

Legere had spent the previous day firing off tweets railing against what was then a rumored partnership between AT&T and Amazon. He was still on fire Wednesday when he called Amazon's presentation a "boring show." So I had to ask: Aren't you afraid of burning your bridges with the online retailing giant?

"F--- 'em," he said.

If there was any moment that summed up Legere, that was it. He was simultaneously offensive, blunt, unfiltered, half-serious, and completely entertaining. It's an image that he's used to great effect in reviving T-Mobile's fortunes, turning an also-ran into a company that last quarter added more wireless subscribers than the rest of the industry combined.

That attitude helped sell its two announcements on Wednesday: a test-drive program that allows anyone to try a T-Mobile iPhone 5S for seven days without cost, and a new music service coupled with data-free streaming music. The moves aren't as game-changing as T-Mobile's last Uncarrier programs, analysts say, but the showmanship makes up for that.

"These initiatives are likely to further bolster T-Mobile's competitive position, although they do not appear to be as radical as some of the company's earlier Uncarrier strategies," said Simon Flannery, an analyst at Morgan Stanley.

Legere's hair-trigger wit hasn't come without its share of consequences. At the Uncarrier event, he said the carriers were "raping" its customers, a comment that many felt crossed the line, and which Legere apologized for on Twitter on Thursday. His mocking tweets at BlackBerry and CEO John Chen helped push BlackBerry to take the surprising and unprecedented step of ceasing its relationship with T-Mobile .

In his apology on Thursday, Legere acknowledged he sometimes needed a filter for his R-rated language.

Just seconds after dropping the F-bomb at me, he offered a more reasoned response to Amazon's decision to sell its Fire Phone exclusively through AT&T.

"I am disappointed a bit that a company like Amazon that has transformed the way I do business in purchasing things came out with such an archaic short-term model of an exclusive, subsidized arrangement," he said.

When it comes to taking on his rivals and even potential partners, Legere said he wouldn't "shy away from picking a big fight." He argued that everything he has said has been on behalf of his customers. Legere went on to criticize the Fire Phone's high price, which falls in line with most premium devices, and its lack of benefit for existing Prime customers.

"Yeah, I'm underwhelmed," he said.

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Could the Amazon Fire Phone make its way to T-Mobile? CEO John Legere seems to think so. James Martin/CNET

But he acknowledged that some of the Fire Phone's features, whether it's the Dynamic Perspective 3D-imaging capability or the Firefly image-recognition software, could transform the industry over time. He added that T-Mobile customers would eventually get to buy the phone, noting that he didn't think the exclusivity deal with AT&T would last long.

"We can't comment on any specific project," he said. "But there is no way that Amazon has not spoken to T-Mobile about doing things in the phone space."

T-Mobile would be breaking into a longstanding relationship between Amazon and AT&T. For the past five years, AT&T has supplied the cellular connection for Amazon's Kindle e-reader. Amazon actually showed an early prototype of the Fire Phone to AT&T three years ago, and even then the product was met with enthusiasm at the carrier, according to Dave Limp, head of devices for the e-retailing giant.

AT&T, to its credit, has shown a willingness to bet on exclusive deals with unique devices. While some wildly pay off, such as the original iPhone, others fizzle, like the "Facebook phone," the HTC First.

"We do more firsts than anyone else," Jeff Bradley, head of mobile devices for AT&T, said in an interview on the sidelines of the Fire Phone launch. "It's in our DNA to bring innovation to the market."

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AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega onstage at the Fire Phone launch. James Martin/CNET

Legere, however, mocked AT&T and Facebook's efforts, tweeting out that he hoped Amazon doesn't fall victim to "the AT&T curse that is the Facebook phone."

T-Mobile Chief Marketing Officer Mike Sievert, who also sat in on the interview with Legere and me, insisted that T-Mobile and Facebook continue to have a strong relationship.

Legere, meanwhile, said the deal "reeked of the big and bigger getting together to do something in a classic way."

The exclusivity deal has long been the traditional way of introducing a high-profile smartphone. In exchange for locking up with one carrier, the company's product gets a more prominent marketing push and better shelf space in stores. AT&T's Bradley said the Fire Phone would get the "classic full hero treatment."

But the deal may irk loyal Prime customers on other carriers who won't be able to buy the Fire Phone when it comes out on July 25. Other handset manufacturers have taken a page from Samsung and Apple and broadened their distribution to virtually every carrier.

Amazon's Limp acknowledged he was disappointed that non-AT&T Prime customers couldn't buy the smartphone, and added that he hoped they would be able to wait out their contracts and make the switch.

Amazon wasn't available to comment on whether T-Mobile has been in discussions about eventually carrying the Fire Phone. Limp declined to discuss any details of the exclusivity agreement with AT&T.

It would behoove Amazon and other companies to start working with T-Mobile, Legere said, noting that the carrier is the fastest growing in the industry. That's partly why Apple was willing to partner with the carrier to deliver a pool of loaner iPhone 5S units for T-Mobile's Test Drive program, which allows customers to try the iPhone 5S and the T-Mobile service for seven days without charge.

"The bigger question isn't who I'm pissing off, but how are you going to do business with the fastest-growing wireless business in the country, who only speaks up to transform the way the US industry does business?" Legere said.

 

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