Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Modern business models

Petite Planète is a translation agency that could not have existed when I got my masters degree in 1992. The team of nearly 10 people is spread across various parts of Germany, England, and even down to a Scotsman in Portugal. All of the work we do takes place over the Internet, which is essentially our shared office space.

While some people like to check out of the office completely on vacation, I prefer to take my business with me for an hour or so a day in order to get more weeks on the road (I have been averaging around 10 weeks of travel in the past few years). A mobile Internet connection is crucial for this purpose.

Unfortunately, the European Union still primarily consists of independent countries, so a cell phone contract in Germany does you little good in any other European country. Life is much better in this respect in the US, where you can take your cell phone anywhere from Florida to Maine to Oregon and still pay the same rates.

In Europe, you generally pay at least €7-€9 per megabyte in a foreign country. A simple MP3 with three megabytes would then cost me somewhere between €20 and €30 -- for that price I could buy two CDs.

In the past few weeks, I have therefore been considering a roaming offer that Deutsche Telekom offers to business customers. It's not good -- you pay 75 euros a month for 150 megabytes of traffic with a minimum of three months, and that is on top of your normal monthly subscription rate -- but it's the only European data roaming offer out there.

I decided to get an iPhone and sign onto that extra European package for the three summer months. The whole thing was going to cost me 59 euros x 24 months plus two summers of roaming at 225 euros a pop, putting me around €1800. Quite a bit of money for me, but at least I get a fancy cell phone and a bit of protection from explosive roaming rates when I am traveling.

But Deutsche Telekom will have none of it. The salesperson at the shop told me that I am not a business customer because Petite Planète is not registered with the Chamber of Commerce here (we don't have to be). Actually, the salesperson had never even heard of that EU-wide data roaming package (I am getting really tired of knowing more than salespeople), but a call to a supervisor revealed that Deutsche Telekom had discontinued that rate a few weeks ago, so I can't have it. Nonetheless, the offer is still advertised online for business customers. There is no indication on the website that freelancers do not qualify as businesses. When I suggested to the salesperson that it might be his job to get customers like me to switch to Deutsche Telekom from another provider, he informed me that he had to "follow the rules" ("ich muß nach Vorschrift arbeiten").

No problem, I thought, I'll just stay with my current provider (o2) and buy the new Google Android cell phone. But the salesperson at a local electronics shop told me that this mobile phones home even when you are in a foreign country, and the function cannot be disabled. So even if you switch off all of the Internet connection settings on your Google phone, you will still probably have to pay more than €100 simply for crossing international borders within the EU. The Google cell phone was made for the US market, where roaming is not an issue. As a workaround, Deutsche Telekom has advised its German customers to leave their Google phones at home -- there is no software patch at the moment.

All of this is going to save me a lot of money because I am going to refrain from buying a new cell phone, and when I am abroad I will simply look for a café with free WiFi -- it's an inconvenience I would paid good money to get around, but European providers do not seem to want my money.

I don't understand current business models these days. I recently bought a large Cinema display from Apple, and when the thing got here it only had one port -- some newfangled thing that did not connect to my eight-month-old MacBook, much less my Vaio laptop. Apple's German hotline confirmed that there is no adapter on the market. The new Cinema displays apparently only connect to the new generation of MacBooks released last fall. So I had to return a €900 display because the manufacturer only provided a single connector that will serve less than 0.1 percent of the laptop market.

UPDATE: My colleague Tim send me this link about the EU's new policy: "The wholesale price of data roaming will be capped at one euro per megabyte from July 2009, falling to 80 euro cents from July 2010 and to 50 euro cents from July 2011." Still, T-Mobile's (retracted) offer for 150 MB at 75 euros is still better.

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