My Old Friend, AT&T, Still Bringing The Scumbaggery After All These Years

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Just Give ‘Em Away. Buy A Samsung HDTV From Best Buy, Get A Samsung Android Tablet

January 19, 2011. It’s a day I’ll always remember. It’s the day I finally got to destroy a Horcrux that had been bringing misery into my life: AT&T.

That’s the day I finally cancelled my AT&T service after years of dropped calls, non-existant service, gross over-charges, and all around frustration. I even did it before I knew for sure that Verizon was getting the iPhone. I had had enough. That I got to cancel it by way of Google Voice, adding insult to injury, was just icing on the cake.  Looking back, it was one of the best decisions, technology-wise, I’ve made in the past few years. And today it’s looking even better.

You see, after months of AT&T being out of sight, out of mind, they stormed back into my brain last night when I read on Engadget that they would be removing individual text messaging plans in a few days. In AT&T marketing parlance, this is called “streamlining”. In my parlance, this is called “bullshit”.

Specifically, AT&T is removing the cheaper $10 a month option which gives users 1,000 text messages. All that remains is the $20 a month unlimited option. Or you can have no pre-set plan and pay $0.20 for each SMS and $0.30 for each MMS.

Sure, that’s “streamlining” in that they’re making three options now two. But what’s important is the motives behind the move.

Here’s what’s really going on. Naturally, AT&T will never admit to this, but they’re scared shitless of the full-on assault currently underway in the SMS space. You see, these short messages have long amounted to a revenue stream of billions of dollars for carriers, with profit margins approaching 100 percent for each message. In other words, it has long been a total rip-off. And the carriers have been milking it dry for years.

But now startups like GroupMe, which allows users to bypass SMS and use data to send short messages, are gaining popularity. Meanwhile, massive players like Google and Facebook have introduced their own solutions for bypassing SMS. And with the launch of iOS 5 this fall, Apple is about to bake a work-around into each and every iPhone out there in the form of iMessage.

AT&T’s “streamlining” is a purely defensive maneuver. The truth is that neither GroupMe or Facebook Messenger are going kill SMS overnight. Nor is iMessage. But what these services are going to do is slowly but surely make people realize they don’t need to send nearly as many text messages anymore. I look at my own usage. In the past six months, I’ve sent seven actual SMS message. Seven. All the rest of my short messages have been through either Beluga, GroupMe, the Google Voice app, or now Facebook Messenger. Each of these messages have been sent or received for free (they’re a just use a tiny amount of data you’re already paying for if your on 3G). This is the future.

So with the services now out there making people less reliant on SMS, what was going to happen? People were going to want to downgrade their plans. Who wants to pay $20 a month when you’re using only a handful of messages? Why not pay $10? Well, now you can’t. You can either pay $20 for unlimited, or have no plan and pay AT&T’s ridiculous per-message rate.

AT&T knows that most people are not going to chose the latter. Again, we’re not to the point yet where people will be fully comfortable letting go of SMS. Hell, all of the services I mentioned use it as a backup in one way or another.

Think of it this way: unlimited SMS is heroin. The $10 a month limited plan is methadone which you could have used to wean yourself off. AT&T has just cut off the methadone supply. They’re daring you to go cold turkey. Most won’t be able to.

I’m sure it’s purely coincidental that this move is happening right now, just weeks before the launch of iOS 5 with iMessage. Sure, AT&T just “streamlined” their SMS plans a few months ago, but why not do it again? I’m also sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Apple unveiled iMessage without telling the carriers. AT&T just felt like customers needed this change right now.

Nope, I don’t miss you one bit, AT&T.

Update: Not even 2 minutes after I publish, does my old foil Seth Bloom write in to note that this change is only for new customers. In other words, this will only affect millions of new users who sign up for AT&T to get the iPhone 5 (or any new Android phone, etc) shortly. No biggie.

In other words part 2: “go ahead, don’t sign up for an SMS plan, we dare you”.