[Tech] A Tale of Apples and Orange

An Orange shop, though not the one in question here (Image by Aldfern)

An Orange shop, though not the one in question here (Image by Aldfern)

So this weekend I decided to help my mum, who is not the most technically minded person in the world, upgrade her phone. She’s had a hideous pink Nokia dumbphone that I bought her years ago on Pay as You Go, and had decided it was time to join the 21st century.

After chatting to her about her needs it emerged that she wanted a phone capable of using GPS, browsing the BBC news website, taking half decent photos and video, and using Skype. Apart from being slightly taken aback that my mum had even heard of GPS of Skype I felt it would be relatively easy to find a phone that fit the bill.

I immediately ruled out dumb phones and feature phones, as they wouldn’t do everything she wanted. We played with a few dummy phones in shops, and mum decided she didn’t want any of the smaller Android handsets (like the HTC Wildfire) because she struggles to see smaller screens. She also decided that the new HTC Desire HD is too big to fit in her handbag’s phone pocket (I didn’t even know such things existed).

So we were left with a choice of two or three handsets. The iPhone, the HTC Desire (she didn’t like the keyboard on the Desire Z) or the Samsung Galaxy S. I let mum play with my iPhone, but she didn’t like the way predictive text worked (it is fairly counter-intuitive that you have to tap the suggested word to NOT use it) and she wasn’t massively keen on paying the hefty up front premium carriers demand for the Apple phone.

In the end, she decided to go with the HTC Desire. It might have been around for nearly a year, but it’s still among the most powerful Android phones on the market (when oh when will we get the Evo in the UK?). It’s also relatively cheap, especially as it has been joined in the HTC line up by it’s newer brothers, the Desire Z and Desire HD. The final deciding factor was that my girlfriend is a Desire user (what an odd sounding sentence) so can help with any tech support queries mum might have in the future.

I had assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that mum would find the iPhone easier to use. The app store and its easy installation process, plus the straightforward, if limited, nature of the notifications engine in iOS have always seemd geared towards less experienced users in my opinion. In the end though it was simple design choice – the text input system – tha swung the whole debate.

iPhone autocorrect, it is a bit counterintuitive, but a deal breaker?

iPhone autocorrect, it is a bit counterintuitive, but a deal breaker?

I remember reading once that a Scandanvian car firm (I can’t recall if it was Saab or Volvo) had spent more than a million pounds developing an overly impressive cup-holder because their research h ad shown them that a significant number of customers had decided which car to buy based on how fancy the bit wher they put their drink looked.

I guess it’s the same with any product. Customers can look past the 99 percent of the design that meets their needs and be put off by a single, relatively unimportant, element just as easily as they can be swayed into parting with thousands of pounds for a crappy Swedish car by a fancy cup-holder. It must be incredibly frustrating for designers.

Anway, back to the saga of the phone purchase, and the real reason for this slightly ranty post…

Setting off to buy the phone, mum told me she definitely wanted to stay with Orange because she regularly uses their 2 for 1 film promotion, and felt certain she wouldn’t get reception at home on another network – a reasonable assumption given that she lives in the middle of national park.

So, off to the local Orange shop we went, where a slighly surly man ignored us for a while, before talking us through some tarrif options. The long and the short of it seemed to be that for a half decent package (unlimited texts, 300 cross network minutes, 0.5GB data) they wanted £35 a month AND £50 up front for the handset. That seemed rather steep so I asked if he could come down on the handset.

Now it’s worth pointing out here that my mum is effectively a new customer. She has used Orange Pay as You Go for years, but has never had a contract. My girfriend, who has been an Orange contract user for decades managed to get the exact same phone on upgrade a month early, with no fee, on a 600 minute a month contract for £17.50 a month. Does it seem right that Orange would charge existing customers half price for twice as much product as they would a brand new customer?

So what did our friendly Orange shop attendant offer me? Nothing. “There’s nothing I can do on the handset, the prices are fixed” he told me. “What about coming down on the cost of the contract?” I asked. “No” he said miserably before shouting across me and my mum at some poor customer who was only asking if he could use a charger.

A Carphone Warehouse branch - not the one in question, though (Image by Betty Longbottom)

A Carphone Warehouse branch - not the one in question, though (Image by Betty Longbottom)

So we left, unhappy at the service, and the package on offer. Just two doors down is a Carphone Warehouse (for non UK readers CW is a mobile phone store that sells phones and contracts on all of the major networks). Within minutes the friendly store manager had established what we wanted and offered my mum a seat. He didn’t once try and fob us off with a handset we didn’t want (unlike Mr Orange who continually tried to foist the Wildfire on my mum claiming it was ‘basically the same phone’ even though it’s about half as powerful as the Desire).

Best of all though was the price. After a quick check, he told us their standard price for the same 300 minute, unlimited text, 0.5GB data deal for just £25 a month, with a completely free handset. That’s a tenner a month cheaper with no up front deal. I should stress that wasn’t the result of haggling, that was the standard price from Carphone Warehouse for the Desire on that Orange talk plan.

Mum took the deal, but asked me why Orange’s own retail operation can’t offer as good a deal as a network-independent chain like CW. I couldn’t think of a decent answer, and was even more confused as to why Orange were so reluctant to offer a half decent deal to a new contract customer. It used to be that new customers got the best deals, and upgrade users got stiffed, not any more it seems.

One more anecdote from this adventure. When I asked Mr Orange why he had no leeway to bargain, his answer was hilarious; “you know,” he moaned “it’s the credit crunch and stuff”. Right, so at a time of shrinking consumer confidence and retail decline companies should raise their prices and reduce the flexibility they have to entice new customers? I’d wager that’s not a commercially sound attitude for one half of the UK’s biggest mobile phone operator to have – which is why I’m sticking with O2.

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