The Futurist: Your Friendar is Broken… or How MVNOs Can Succeed

It’s nigh impossible to open a magazine these days without finding a four-page ad spread telling you that Helio is not just a phone. Nope, its a “Friendar” too! And, even better, it gives you instant access to MySpace! Wow!

These ads are the product of one of the largest technology marketing campaigns in recent memory. Unfortunately, they are nearly assuring that Helio will be a gargantuan money-losing debacle. In fact, I’d venture to say that all MVNOs (those smaller cell phone carriers such as Boost Mobile, AMPd, and Helio that essentially rent network space from another carrier) are slowly headed the way of the now-dead ESPN Mobile. And its a shame, because having more competition and consumer choice should help consumers.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. MVNOs CAN succeed, click the jump to see how…


Most MVNOs are positively packed with features and content. Unfortunately, they habitually underestimate consumers’ ability to grasp words like “EV-DO” and “streaming video”, and instead continue to almost exclusively hawk their image—which is nearly always “young, hip, dude with disposable income.” How original. And, unfortunately, this marketing almost always comes out like your friend’s mom who tries too hard to be cool—it just reeks of corporate wrangling and focus groups.

Fine, we all know that Helio phones have easy access to MySpace (actually, any Web-capable phone can access the site, and Cingular has been pushing the same feature lately, but that’s another story altogether), but having that be the only point your ads emphasize (other than the fact that your phone is also a “Friendar”) essentially limits your target audience to MySpace addicts. And, of course, MySpace is SO 2004. Instead of cutesy ads that tell virtually nothing about the phones’ features, Helio and the like should market their content and wealth of features—which they do have.

And, I’m not even going to touch Boost Mobile’s “Where You At?” slogan (written in “Graffiti” font), which I find borderline offensive.


It is very, very, very difficult to get people to swallow a $200 fee to switch carriers, and most consumers aren’t quite privy to contract-swapping Web sites. If MVNOs are serious about luring in people who are sick of Verizon and Cingular, they should offer to buy out their contracts. I’d be much more willing to try an MVNO if this tax were vanquished, even if it meant signing up for another contract. If I were an MVNO I’d start this out as a 30-day promotion—the free publicity alone would more than pay for the cost.


One of the selling points of MVNOs is that they bring Korea-style handsets to America. Cool. Except when you have an option of one or two phones, which are essentially two-year old Korean models, it kinda kills the appeal. It’s a shame too, because our Korean friends have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of handsets to choose from. The MVNOs should throw a catalogue of all these not-seen-in-America phones on their Web sites, charge a modest import fee, and open up their networks to them. The ads will nearly write themselves: “For years, Koreans have had access to loads of feature-packed phones that never see the light of day in America. Until now.” Wham bam, a million sales ma’am.

Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.