Who wants a custom mobile phone?

Two companies this week announced roll-your-own mobile phones. Are carriers paying attention?

Two different companies this week announced two different visions for customizable mobile phones. Are we entering a new era, where mobile phones are used and sold like laptops -- where you snap on extra functionality on the fly or have them built to order?

An Israeli company called Modu Thursday unveiled a GSM phone due in October that enables customization. The core of the Modu product is a tiny phone designed to slide into special "jackets," which are phone exteriors with extra functionality, plus software that instructs the phone about special color schemes and other features. For example, a user might use a "jacket" with a nice camera in it for personal use, then replace that with a "jacket" with a QWERTY keyboard for business use. The company also envisions jackets that aren't phones, such as GPS devices.

Another company called zzzPhone announced build-to-order phones, and claims that buying its phone will be like ordering a PC from Dell. You use its Web site to choose the features you want, and the company will build it for you. Its base model costs US$149. You can choose from a range of colors and add additional features, such as a 7-megapixel camera, TV tuner or GPS for additional cost.

The company's initial press release, distributed Monday, said zzzPhone is an American company that makes the phones in a Chinese factory. The release and the company's Web site suggest that the whole operation may be a little shady. For example, the site's specifications page says the zzzPhones will be powered by "Windows Mobile or equivalent." It doesn't know? Still, it's an interesting concept never before tried.

Both Modu and zzzPhone are accurately tapping into unmet demand in the consumer and business handset markets. But it's not demand for their products per se. What they've identified is that phone buyers are fed up with being locked into one single phone for all uses and unsatisfied with the limited handset choices offered by carriers.

Major US carriers have long suffered from a blindness about what people want in handsets, so I'm going to spell it out for them: People want more than one -- to be able to use more than one mobile phone per data plan and per phone number without being gouged.

If you want two mobile phones, the carriers force you into using two different phone numbers and double the cost of the basic wireless plan. (I'm old enough to remember when home network providers doubled your fee when you wanted to add a second PC to the network. Eventually they got a clue.)

The Modu vision, for example, is really all about different phones for different uses. It achieves the dream of "one wireless plan, many handsets" with its core module and varying jackets. Ultimately, it's just a way to transfer your SIM card from one phone to the next, but with a lot of extra plastic and always with the same tiny screen.

All these impressive Modu gymnastics are necessary only because the carriers are too boneheaded to offer what their customers obviously want: the ability to use multiple phones with one account and one phone number. Instead of having available whatever kinds of phones Modu and its partners might make available, imagine being able to switch between the entire universe of available handsets.

To me, the coolest thing about the Modu concept isn't the jackets, but the size of the core phone. It's smaller than a credit card. I'd love to carry this around as one of my phones -- say, when I just need a tiny phone. But at other times, I'd also like the option to carry an iPhone, a GPS phone like the Nuvifone and a real QWERTY phone, maybe a BlackBerry, depending on what I'm doing at the time.

Enabling multiple handsets per account would also solve the conundrum businesses face with phones. Companies of all sizes -- from small, local businesses to global enterprises -- have strong incentives to provide some employees with phones. Doing so enables companies to give secure access to sensitive data, lets employees VPN into the firewall and provides other useful functionality.

The problem is that people want to choose and carry their own phones, too. People want to buy, say, an iPhone for personal use, or some other consumer phone, and still be able to receive calls and e-mail from work on the weekend or in the evening.

The world would be a better place if all carriers provided multiple SIM cards per account and data plan, and all handsets supported multiple SIM cards, which only a few currently do. Your company could provide you with, say, a Treo locked into the corporate network with secure data access and special applications, and you could buy your own iPhone. If both the Treo and the iPhone supported two SIM cards, both work and personal calls could come to both phones, depending on which was activated.

The tragedy here for carriers is lost opportunity. By enabling multiple handsets for single accounts, they could boost handset sales revenue, tack on a small charge (say, US$15 extra per month) for each additional handset, provide an incentive for users to upgrade to higher data plans, and upsell business owners to corporate accounts (rather than risk losing that business to other carriers).

I applaud Modu and zzzPhone for trying to provide people with what we really want: handset choice. But I'd rather the carriers just get a clue and give us that choice by enabling multiple handsets per account.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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Mike Elgan

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