The current state of the mobile market, contrary to what some tech commenters might be opining, is anything but ponies and roses. It's a lot like coming home from a hard day of work and finding out that your toilet is leaking--leaking all over your floor, that is. You don't really have the tools to fix it, but you do have a healthy amount of duct tape sitting around.
Get where I'm going?
AT&T's announcement that it's eliminating the unlimited data plans for iPhone and iPad owners is but the black, sticky tape covering up a greater disaster underneath. But that's not what the various Internet commenters would have you believe. To them, the charitable AT&T has graciously swooped down to lower everyone's monthly data fees since so very, very few people will ever push past its first-tier pricing scheme of $25 per month for two gigabytes of data.
This is not some charitable reduction that saves 98 percent of AT&T's user base an extra $5 a month. If you believe that, then by all means, let the carrier come marching right up to your front door with a new contract and a shiny golden ticket to Wonka's candy factory. Because that, sir or ma'am, is just the level of delusion we're talking about.
No, AT&T is doing what one might otherwise call, "laying the foundation." Look, Apple has the carrier strapped to the rooftop as its various devices go on a grand road trip throughout the mobile marketplace. And it's no secret that the Cupertino giant might be eying other carriers in a grand effort to end its exclusivity with AT&T once and for all.
Were I AT&T, I'd be doing everything under my power to prepare for the inevitable-including jacking up my fee for abandoning a contract early (done!), cancelling network-killing unlimited data plans in favor of a "pay as you go" strategy for all (done!), and thinking of every possible way to grind blood from the iStone's still-unworkable features (tethering?)
But it would be foolish to say that AT&T's switch to tiered "DataPlus" and "DataPro" lines is, in itself, the network's only real buffer against the future. No, this is just the beginning. Like ISPs, AT&T has seen the light at the end of the tunnel, and it ain't the word, "unlimited." But the company can't just up and switch everyone over to a pay-as-you-use kind of plan, nor can it somehow cut the monthly data allotments of DataPlus or DataPro to an absurd, consumer-angering degree.
So what does it do? AT&T conceals the switch in a discount. Sure, to the average person, that new iPhone contract you just signed up for (once Apple unveils the new device Monday) might appear to save you a crisp $15 to $5 based on the old plan. Awesome right?
Okay. What happens when AT&T begins rolling out its 4G network in 2011? Up go the data transfers. What if some combination of the new iPhone's video camera/multitasking/magical Steve Jobs emulator doubles the phone's bandwidth use? Okay. What happens if Apple releases a slimmed-down version of the iPhone that's just that-a phone with no bundled Wi-Fi whatsoever? In short, you're stuck.
It's betting against the house to think that, over the course of however many months of your restructured iWhatever contract, that there will be no compelling reason for you to increase your bandwidth usage. But even if I'm just making this all up, one fact remains clear: Now that AT&T has let tiered data plans through the door, it's only a matter of time before it starts tightening the noose.
Don't believe me? Then why would you have to pay $20 on top of the data plan (which you're already being charged based on your usage) simply a way to use your iDevice's Internet connection on a given system? Why has AT&T made the switch, now, some 30 days after the launch of the iPad itself (and its widely touted unlimited data plan)? Why the heck are consumers still being charged so much for a freakin' text message?
AT&T isn't selling its users cheaper data plans; it's selling them a grim future.
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software.