Tuesday, July 27th 2010 | Ismael Ghalimi
As my TripIt page can attest, I travel for business quite a bit. On average, I’m on the road more than 150 days a year, with monthly trips to Tokyo, and quarterly trips to Singapore and Europe. And being Intalio’s front-line sales representative, I am called to make product demonstrations to customers on a regular basis. Unfortunately, most of our customers and prospects are (very) large organizations, which tend to be fairly sensitive when it comes to the security of their private networks. As a result, public Internet access from any of their meeting rooms is usually unavailable. And because Intalio is all about Cloud Computing, it creates some interesting challenges. Since we launched our Private Cloud product a year ago, I have been experimenting with different ways of staying connected while traveling around the World. Here is what I learned along the way.
My primary phone is an iPhone 4, with a regular AT&T account enabled for international roaming. This gives me worldwide access to email from the handset device, but no ability to tether my laptop of iPad (since I want to keep my unlimited data plan). As a result, it’s an incomplete solution, and a very expensive one if I start using Safari for reading blogs or making product demonstrations (Intalio’s product is bandwidth-hungry).
In order to get Internet access from my laptop, I initially used 3G USB modems. They’re cheap, easy to find, but a pain to configure, especially when using a MacBook or MacBook Pro laptop computer. I bought one in Japan, managed to make it work with one of my laptops, then failed to re-install its driver after upgrading to Mac OS X 10.6. This lead me to consider using a mobile Wi-Fi access point as an alternative. My first such device was Novatel’s MiFi 2200 Mobile Hotspot, which I introduced in this past article and used in the US. I immediately fell in love with the concept, and later on acquired similar devices for Japan, then Singapore.
This worked fairly well as long as I was traveling regularly to two countries only, but when business called in Western Europe, things started to get a bit more complicated. Today, I am finishing a trip that took me to Ireland, the UK, France, and Germany. I bought similar devices in the UK and France, then realized that my approach would not scale, not to mention the fact that it was an utter waste of hardware. Also, trying to get connectivity in France made me reconsider the form factor altogether.
The problem with my approach is that I usually cannot get regular data plans, since I don’t have a permanent address (and their associated utility bills) in the countries I travel to on a regular basis. Instead, I have to rely on pay-as-you-go plans that require customers to follow super funky procedures in order to add credits to their plans. For example Orange in France makes it borderline impossible for the user. First, when you buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card, it comes with 3 hours of free connectivity, but you can’t add more credits before 48 hours (because of batch processing in their billing system). Second, the only way you can add more credits is by calling a toll-free number that can only be called from a French phone. And if you want to add credits through their website, you need to create an account which password is sent to you over SMS, using the cellphone number attached to your SIM. But since you’re using a mobile hot-spot device that does not have any screen on it, the SMS is positively unreadable — unless you have some X-Men powers that let you scan through flash memory. I for one don’t.
After hours of trials and errors, I eventually gave up and decided to make some radical changes to my approach. First, I would use a device with a screen, also known as Android smartphone with Mobile AP (Mobile Access Point) enabled. Second, such a device would be unlocked, so that I would buy and carry a single device and only buy a SIM card for each country where I would spend more than 4 nights every year. This lead me to the positively fantabulous Samsung Galaxy S, which I bought unlocked from a tiny shop in Bonn, Germany.
Before I dive any deeper, let me get something straight: I am a patented Apple fanboy. I currently own four or five Apple laptops, I bought every single iPhone every released, and I still have a couple of shrink-wrapped iPhone 1G 8GB, which I hope will serve as a retirement plan sometime in the future… That being said, I must admit that Apple has some serious competition with Samsung’s 3GS look-alike device, especially when using the factory model free of any carrier-installed crapware. What I like about this smartphone is that it’s as light as any mobile hot-spot device I ever owned, but it comes with a (gorgeous) screen that tells me what’s going on in plain English, instead of relying on some cryptic color-coding, or seemingly obfuscated instructions. Also, because it’s a full-fledge phone, I can interact with local mobile operators through voice or SMS in order to activate newly-acquired SIM cards, or add credits to already-setup plans. In other words, it works.
To be honest, I am not planning to replace my iPhone with an Android device any time soon (unlike many of my trend-setter friends). The iPhone remains the best mobile device from an industrial design standpoint, and design matters a great deal to me. Also, its user interface has a level of polish that Android can only dream of, while its curated marketplace feels a lot safer than Android’s Wild Wide West. Nevertheless, Samsung’s top-of-the-line Android device is a perfect traveling companion, with its removable battery, regular-size SIM card, and support for Mobile AP. I know that Jonathan Ive will never go for the first one, which is fine with me. The second one is only a matter of time (until Micro SIM become the norm). But the third one is a no brainer as far as I’m concerned. If I pay for an unlimited data plan, I want it to apply to any devices I am using, be it an iPhone, an iPad, or a MacBook (Pro). So, if you don’t want to lose my business to Android over the long run, you Apple should really consider having a serious talk with your friends at AT&T.
Until then, I will proudly carry my Samsung Galaxy S around…
With a bunch of SIM cards for various local carriers…
Which brings me to the real point of this article: acquiring SIM cards for multiple countries is a real pain in the neck. And having to pay a premium for pay-as-you-go plans feels like a total rip off. In the long run, major carriers will figure this out, and will offer roaming plans that actually make sense. But this will take three to five years. In the interim, I must believe there is a significant business opportunity for what I would call Global Mobile Virtual Network Operators (GMVNO) to offer roaming data plans with a single SIM card that would work in most major economies, with unlimited data plans. If I where the Product Manager for it, I would price it at something like $25/month/country, with a minimum of four or five countries.
I can’t wait to be a beta-tester for one of these.
Entry filed under: Cloud Computing