Wednesday, June 02, 2010

AT&T jams one up the iPad's jacksie

We have what amounts to a religious war in our household: David is a Mac lover, I'm not.

There's irony in this, because I was a diehard Mac fan throughout my formative years. My Dad brought home an Apple IIG in 1989 or so, and for the next decade, I regarded those who didn't use Macs as vaguely inferior life forms.

Then, right around the time Apple seemed to be sputtering off into its grave, I succumbed to the ubiquity of Windows. (This did not stop me from plastering a "snail inside" decal on every Pentium PC I owned. I retained the sly snootiness of an Apple user.) Between office PCs, college computer lab PCs, my campus-job Windows laptop, and my own broke-student inability to afford a new Mac, I drifted off into Microsoftland.

And stayed there. When my job change two years ago brought with it a Mac desktop, I was the only magazine staffer to regard it as an actual work impediment. I fled whenever possibly to my alternate office 20 blocks north, in no small part because my desk there had a Windows machine and was the only place I could actually get work done. I couldn't help it; my brain now worked in c:\Windows\Desktop directories.

Meanwhile, David went full-bore in the other direction. For the first few years we were together, he used my backtop work laptop as his home PC. When I changed jobs, I bribed him to give it up by using my pay raise to buy him his first personal laptop. He chose a MacBook, and within less than 24 hours he was far more attached it to than me. "If I'd know it was this good, I would have skipped eating for a week and spent the money on this years ago!" was, I believe, a direct quote from him. I rolled my eyes.

But for many years now, he's been a Mac addict, with the iPod/iBook/iPhone combo, while I cling to my Windows desktop, archaic Samsung cell phone and Palm PDA. (Stop laughing. I cherish and coddle it. And am in deep, deep denial about it being the end-of-the-Palm-road when it dies.)

One reason I've resisted the siren call of Apple is that I don't like the company's closed tech ecosystem. The Apple experience works really well if you use its approved apps, on its approved hardware, to do approved create-and-consume things, on the network of its approved bandwidth provider. Wander off, and you get shooed back onto the path.

So I was pretty intrigued today to see AT&T make a subtle move with big ramifications: No more unlimited data plans for new iPhone or iPad buyers. Welcome to the world of metered billing.

Which, yes, will probably knock a few dollars of the bill of the average Apple gadget user, if they opt into a pricing tier reflecting the fairly casual data consumption most users have. Now. In 2010.

In a year? Or two? I don't see apps and devices using less bandwidth going forward. And once you're into the land of metered billing, you're not going back. Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, and all the cable/broadband/etc providers that have been itching to ditch unlimited bandwidth in favor of metered data have got to be doing the dance of joy right now. AT&T fired the first shot over the bow; now the way is cleared for them to launch their own fusillades.

I don't think it'll happen immediately, and I think the upward pricing pressure will be gradual -- after all, no telecom wants to spook Congress into doing anything rash or regulatory -- but I think we're edging toward a future where bandwidth costs are charged by consumption, like electricity or water.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, David has recently discovered the streaming, addictive joys an subscription for his iPhone. Guess who plans to cling to his grandfathered, unlimited data plan for as long as physically possible?