Why Some of 2014’s Most Intriguing Gadgets Will Never Reach American Stores
BARCELONA — Among the hardware on display at the Mobile World Congress show here, I’ve seen the following intriguing items:
• Hewlett-Packard’s giant-screen Slate6 and Slate7 VoiceTab tablets, which come with a generous 250 MB of data a month, for 24 months.
• Lenovo’s S860, an Android phone that can recharge another phone through its own USB port.
• The ZTE Projector Hotspot, a WiFi router that can share its LTE connection with nearby phones while also recharging them — and project video up to 10 feet away.
• Blackphone, a privacy-first, Android-based smartphone that comes preset to make your communications anonymous and encrypted.
These diverse devices share one thing in common: Even though some are made by U.S. companies, or have prices listed in U.S. dollars on press releases, they’re not coming to U.S. stores soon. Some, in fact, may never reach the States in quantity unless MWC attendees smuggle them home in their luggage.
This global gathering — last year’s drew more than 72,000 attendees — provides an excellent opportunity to see what’s new in the smartphone world, or at least that portion of it outside of Apple’s orbit. (That company skips events it doesn’t run itself.) But MWC also can’t help but spotlight how different the U.S. market can be from the rest of the world.
The single biggest distortion is this: Far more than elsewhere, you can’t buy a phone until the carrier first buys it for you.
Like other situations where a middleman steps into a transaction — say, subscription-TV services that decide what box you use to tune into their services, or state-run liquor stores that charge too much for a limited selection of booze — this can short-circuit the usual feedback loop through which companies learn from customers what they like and don’t like.
But it also complicates life for vendors that aren’t already on the shopping lists of U.S. carriers that, in turn, realize the power they hold. “The ones that are the most desirable have exceedingly stringent requirements,” said Geoff Fishman, executive vice president for consumer brands at XPAL Power. His employer sells an emergency-calling model called the SpareOne that can rest idle for years on one AA battery; it’s still working on in-store distribution.