By Tony Briggs
It may be hard for some folks to realize in this hype-connected age, but there are still a lot of people who don't use smartphones.
I'm talking about the iPhone and it's many brethren, the kind of phone with a touch screen and supports real Internet Web browsing and opens the door to tens of thousands of super useful Web-based apps.
According to experts, as of late last year, only about half the U.S. population had smartphones.
The reason is obvious : cost. Many smartphone users pay more than $100 a month for the privilege of using one of these hi-tech gadgets and that's way beyond the budget of many consumers.
That's about to change.
How would you feel about paying $19 a month for unlimited talk, text and data? That's the price attached to a new smartphone service with a revolutionary approach to the business -- Republic Wireless.
Based in Raleigh, N.C., Republic launched this venture late last year and is getting a lot of buzz for obvious reasons. At these prices, not only can almost everyone afford to own and use a smartphone, but the entire pricing strategy of big players like Verizon, Sprint and AT&T is suddenly in question. Even the formerly budget basement smartphone programs like Walmart's Straight Talk, which costs $45 a month, seems pricey by comparison. This could be a real game changer.
No doubt you are wondering how this could possibly be. After all, we all know that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Well, there are some gotchas here, but they are not deal breakers.
First off, there is only one phone with Republic Wireless, not the dozens you can choose from when you go with the big boys. While that single phone is an Android smartphone, with front- and rear-facing cameras, bluetooth and GPS, it is hardly state of the art. The Motorola Defy XT has a relatively small 3.7-inch touch screen (about the size of the original iPhone) and runs a somewhat dated version of Android known as Gingerbread. It is 3G only. No speedy 4G here. Screen resolution is a usable, but mediocre at 480x854. Cost: $249.
That may seem like a lot when compared to the subsidized phone prices of the big carriers. But they more than make up for their "low" phone prices by charging you big bucks each month -- and forcing you into a two-year contract.
Republic Wireless has a different approach. Sell a basic phone at a cost approaching what it actually costs to make. Then, redesign the phone so it uses free wi-fi most of the time, even to handle voice calls, instead of the more costly cellular phone network. If no wi-fi service is available, the phone will revert to the cellular network. No other cell phone on the market does this.
The only big downside to this is the phone cannot seamlessly hand off from wi-fi to cellular. If you start a phone call on wi-fi and move out of range, the call is dropped and you must call back using the cellular network. That's a downer, but consider how often that is likely to happen. Probably not very often. The company has indicated it may soon offer a newer phone than can handle the handoff without dropping. Stay tuned.
The other reason this service is so cheap is Republic Wireless has no stores and not even an 800 number for customer assistance. That's all handled via the Web, mostly by a community of other users. You deal with company service reps only as a last resort and only by email. The technically challenged need not apply.
Still, this is an intriguing concept, which is almost certainly going to change the smartphone landscape. With the economy continuing to bump along in first gear and lots of people looking for ways to cut costs, this could be a huge money saver. Families could save thousands of dollars a year over a traditional carrier.
As with all new ventures, however, there is always some risk. It may turn out the business model does not work or the company will not survive. Or the price will go up. Or some other unknown. There are no sure things in life.
But since this is a pay-as-you-go program, with no contract, your only big upfront risk is the cost of the phone itself. You can even spread out those costs with a newly announced program where you pay just $99 up front and $29 a month instead of $19. Republic Wireless also offers a 30-day money back guarantee, which may ease the concerns of some who are squeamish about this new approach.
So if you have been longing for a smartphone, but could never stomach the cost of monthly service, this could be the ticket.
Tony Briggs has been writing about technology issues in the Daytona Beach area for more than 20 years.