microsoft – and verizon – get it right

I complain a lot about Verizon Wireless, but they’re getting better.

This isn’t a “goodness of their hearts” thing, of course. But they are an example of the benefit of even mild competition; all it took was somewhat better offers on the price of a gig of data, and a few promotions that paid people to switch from Verizon, and Verizon got a little more reasonable about their monthly charges.

They’re still egregious, but somewhat less so now, especially if you do what I do, run with older and/or cheaper phones.

However, getting a cheaper phone – as in, one that doesn’t extend your contract, tack monthly charges onto your bill – remains challenging. You want a Verizon iPhone or Android flavor? eBay or Amazon for you, and you’re taking on added risk in the process. If that $280 5s dies nine months after you bought it, well, sorry.

Up until now that’s been true of Windows phones as well. Even very, very mediocre phones on a platform almost no one uses would have a full list price of $400-$500. It was a pretty obvious play to make sure no one ever outright bought any phone, and thus continued to rent/be contractually bound to/pay higher monthly charges to Big Red.

Which is silly, given the plethora of dirt cheap Windows phones Nokia Microsoft has turned out over the last couple of years. I’m doing this from memory, but a few months back at the Microsoft store at the large mall about 60 miles from me, I saw AT & T Windows phones for $50 – $60 full price which weren’t…horrible.

Well now Microsoft has somehow talked Verizon into putting an inexpensive, mid-level Windows phone into its line-up, the Lumia 735. I’m assuming that’s how it worked because I can’t imagine Verizon caring much whether it has any Windows phones, so the dealing would most likely come from the Microsoft end.

I played with one for a while today, and came away impressed. It’s reasonably fast, has a nice screen, is mid-sized, (specs, details here) and most important, costs just under $200 without a contract. True, 99 percent of Verizon customers won’t directly care; they’re not going to switch to Windows phone, which continues to suffer from not having many of the basic, important apps the other platforms have. But it could be the start of resetting the value proposition in smart phones on the Verizon network – if you can buy a not-low-end, competent, nicely appointed phone for $200, what are you doing paying double or triple that? It’s a good question.

Over the long haul, phones like the Lumia could bring some equity to the relationship between Verizon and its customers. Up until now, that relationship has been a lot like what cable companies have with people, basically, “Screw you, you’ll take what we give you, pay what we ask, and like it.” The more people are able to buy their phones outright, and are not legally bound to Verizon, the more it has incentive to keep costs down, offer more for the same price, improve service.

And while I couldn’t test it today, it appears that, yes, the f.m. radio is activated in the 735. It’s mentioned in the owner’s manual. Nice.

(Noted – After I wrote the above, I took another look at Verizon’s web site and discovered they’re now offering a couple of Android phones in the $200 and down range, off contract. I have no idea if they’re any good, but it certainly looks like Verizon is changing, at least a little, in response to the market.)

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