5 T-Mobile Innovations, and 5 More We Lose

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BELLEVUE, Wash. (TheStreet) -- T-Mobile may have been fourth place among wireless carriers, but the U.S. is going to miss much more about T-Mobile than Catherine Zeta-Jones commercials.

AT&T's bid for T-Mobile this month won't just eliminate the only other major GSM mobile carrier in the U.S., it officially cuts the U.S. mobile industry's electronic tether to Europe and the innovation that came with it. AT&T will still get a healthy portion of T-Mobile's roughly 34 million customers and more than $21 billion in annual revenue for its $39 billion cash-and-stock investment, but if Ma Bell 2.0 is smart it'll get more than a friendly parting handshake out of the 8% stake it just gave T-Mobile's German parent Deutsche Telekom. Blaming the lack of a T-Mobile USA version of Apple's iPhone for its demise oversimplifies the situation and completely glosses over how T-Mobile managed to endear itself to the American market in the first place. J.D. Power and Associates ratings are still bestowing T-Mobile with awards for customer care and satisfaction, while T-Mobile's likely new masters at AT&T are rarely accused of caring much about or effectively providing either.

That's been the least of T-Mobile's contributions during its 23 years and multiple incarnations. As nice as it is to have a stellar report card from the customers -- AT&T would surely love T-Mobile's ratings -- that's not even T-Mobile's biggest accomplishment this decade.

TheStreet stepped outside the the current mobile zeitgeist for a moment and singled out T-Mobile's five biggest gifts to the mobile customer, as well as five innovations we may miss out on if Deutsche Telekom's out of the picture. It's a nice little stroll down a tech memory lane until it slams into a wall of lament between us and all the gifts and gadgets that could have been:

T-Mobile Gift 1: The Wi-Fi hotspot

Year given: 1994-2001
Many years ago, people went to coffee shops to sip coffee and have conversations. Records of these kinds of interactions can be found in old reruns of Friends, Frasier and other television shows from the mid-'90s that feature coffee shops eerily devoid of laptops and cafe tables converted into offices.

T-Mobile had a big part in changing all of that, if only accidentally. Back in 1994, AMD employee Brett Stewart struck a licensing deal for the original 802.11 MAC that eventually yielded the IEEE 802.11 standard that makes the wireless you enjoy today possible. Stewart's deal helped him found a little company that year called Plancom (Public LAN Communications). That company eventually evolved into something called MobileStar, which really took off when Starbucks contracted it in 2000 to provide Wi-Fi in all its shops.

Seeing an opportunity when MobileStar faltered and started laying off staff, T-Mobile ensured the company lived by acquiring it in 2001, expanding its HotSpots into airport terminals and other public spaces. At one point, PC makers indicated that their laptop was Wi-Fi-ready by slapping a little pink "HotSpot" sticker onto the keyboard.

Though Starbucks eventually bounced the HotSpots for AT&T service, later free, T-Mobile's place as a footnote in wireless history was already secure. Not only is Wi-Fi a standard feature in even the most basic "smart" devices; it's the reason this paragraph was written and filed from a train.

T-Mobile Gift 2: The BlackBerry
Year given: 2002
If you wanted a smartphone nine years ago, there was exactly one game in town, and T-Mobile was the only one playing it. Touted with such slogans as "Want text with your voice?" the first U.S. BlackBerry device from Research in Motion was billed by T-Mobile as a "wireless hand-held email solution" and never really lived down that stuffy reputation.

This wasn't a gadget and it wasn't a fun sensory device filled with games and apps. It was a business tool: An electronic leash that let your bosses and clients pull the chain whenever the mood struck and turned eight-hour jobs into 24/7 "enterprises." It was the starting point for everything that came afterward and a huge boon for T-Mobile.

Sadly, critics still say the carrier that introduced the U.S. to the smartphone was undone by one. Like the BlackBerry's makers, T-Mobile just didn't seem to see the iPhone coming and has been playing catch-up ever since. At least it had those five years.

T-Mobile Gift 3: The Sidekick
Year given: 2002
If T-Mobile needed a clue about where the mobile market was headed, its incredibly popular Sidekick should have been it. Developed as the Danger Hiptop long before Danger took the money and ran to Microsoft as a subsidiary in 2008, the Sidekick and its then-rare qwerty keyboard did what the BlackBerry couldn't: make texting, Web surfing, IM, email, games and photos accessible and fun to a broad spectrum of folks.

That the Sidekick came in fun colors and had pop-culture totems such as Paris Hilton using them and bedazzling them in diamonds didn't hurt either. Even after Hilton's was hacked, the Sidekick was still cool enough to get stolen on just about every subway system in America. They even started sending video messages as early as 2003.

Though the iPhone gets a lot of credit for bringing smartphones to the masses, the real pioneer didn't need a touchscreen to reach regular folks.

T-Mobile Gift 4: The Open Handset Alliance (aka Android)
Year given: 2007
Google led the charge in helping Android eat into BlackBerry's market share and outpace the iPhone, but it wouldn't have gotten far without T-Mobile.

When the Open Handset Alliance formed, only T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel were picking up what Google was putting down. Everyone else was looking toward the newly introduced iPhone and hardware partners such as Motorola, Qualcomm, Samsung, LG and a relatively unknown company called HTC were looking like also-rans in the Apple/RIM race.

More than three years later, ComScore says Android accounts for 31.2% of the U.S. smartphone market. That's a 7.7% increase from October and a humbling for Research in Motion, whose BlackBerry device fell to second place with 30.4% of the market and a 5.4% decrease in the same period. The worldwide numbers are even more impressive, with Android's smartphone share jumping from 3.9% in 2009 to 22.7% last year -- second only to Nokia's Symbian. Gartner predicts that Android will challenge Symbian platform for world dominance by 2014, with both operating systems slated to support nearly 70% of the world's smartphones by that time.

Sadly, T-Mobile never quite found a way to capitalize on Android's success like its competitor Verizon and its hardware partner HTC. While it's likely a point of pride for T-Mobile that its Android foray will be a huge success, does it really matter if the company's not around to see it?

T-Mobile Gift 5: The 3D phone
Year given: 2001
While certainly not the biggest development of the year for T-Mobile, the 3D Tegra 2 phone from Open Handset Alliance partner NVIDIA is a great way for the company to go out with a bang.

Known to consumers as the T-Mobile G2x, and briefly known as the LG Optimus 3D, T-Mobile's newest toy is the mobile answer to the Nintendo 3DS. Running Android 2.2 (or 2.3 with an upgrade) and displaying on a fairly low-res 800x400 screen, the G2x isn't going to display the best version of Avatar in the world -- or even the first half of it, given the 3D screen's drain on battery life -- but it's more likely to give developers a 3D platform to play with.

That means 3D games, 3D mapping and 3D photos for users willing to lose an hour on their device to gain a dimension of display. Like the 3DS, it won't be the biggest or best 3D option, but it'll be a good first step.

T-Mobile Loss 1: Mobile home-security packages
If Deutsche Telekom doesn't pick up the pace, the mobile-enabled home security device that debuted in Germany earlier this month will never see these shores.

A joint venture between DT and Securitas Alert Services, this security program allows customers to install an ADT-style home security system that can be activated and controlled from their smartphone via a mobile app. While such high-end companies as Brazil's iHouse already offer app-controlled home security, Deutsche Telekom's plan lets customers pay for it through their monthly phone bill.

It's a small bit of integration that could be a big convenience for the consumer, but it'll likely be a long time before we see anything like it here -- if at all.

T-Mobile Loss 2: Automatic email, address book and calendar sync for gadgets
Yes, you can sync your devices now, but it actually requires you to do stuff.

Deutsche Telekom email subscribers, meanwhile, can automatically synchronize all data such as email, address book and calendar with their smartphone and tablet through Telekom's collaboration with Microsoft. Smartphone Sync. Basically, any iPhone, Android and Windows Phone 7 device you own will always have all your information on it any time you need it without requiring you to go to a third party or use yet another application.

Again, this is an incremental step, but these are the steps that lead to great products.

T-Mobile Loss 3: Flat-rate data for prepaid customers
At a time carrier data plans are under tight scrutiny and the prepaid cellphone market sees room for growth, a competitive prepaid data plan could help carriers stem the tide. Unfortunately for T-Mobile customers, they won't see one on par with that offered to their German counterparts before being sucked into the AT&T sphere or sent fleeing to such carriers as MetroPCS.

Over in Germany, prepaid customers can either surf the Web and send email for 99 cents a day or $14 a month. No running out of data or minutes, no overages and no refill cards. We realize prepaid culture varies a bit between the U.S. and Europe, but if U.S. prepaid phones ever want to shake their somewhat shadowy image as "burners" or disposables, plans like this might be enough to make subscribers consider the leap.

T-Mobile Loss 4: Near-field payment (tap-and-go)
During the Mobile World Conference earlier this month, Deutsche Telekom announced it would start putting near-field communication payment systems in devices this year for use by next year. This would allow smartphone users to store credit card, account and coupon data on their phone, tap it to a sensor in a store and both pay for their purchases and get discounts automatically. That's huge but, naturally, there's a hitch.

Originally, T-Mobile USA was in on this and would have had first crack at introducing the technology, but considering that the merger with AT&T isn't expected to happen for another year or more, there's a strong chance Americans won't see NFC here for at least that long. Granted, Deutche Telekom partnered with Verizon and AT&T on the Isis Initiative that produced the original NFC technology, but there hasn't been a peep out of either of the other providers about it.

The best hope for NFC, it seems, comes from T-Mobile's worst enemy. Apparently, as Engadget discovered, Telekom buried the lead and only mentioned Apple in a handout it distributed at the conference. There's a chance the new iPhone will have this function built in, but there's also a chance the NFC iPhone iteration won't come around until next year -- when everybody's supposed to get the iPhone 5.

T-Mobile could have been the first to the party again, but instead will miss it altogether.

T-Mobile Loss 5: Satellite/cable television hybrid packages
T-Mobile never got into the multichannel television market, but its parent managed to solve a problem that's stumped U.S. providers including Comcast, AT&T U-verse, Verizon FIOS and Time Warner Cable: How do you reel in customers you can't reach?

For Deutsche Telekom, the answer was to supplement its Entertain cable service with satellite. That's right: cable and satellite options under the same brand. While there are certainly obstacles to this approach in the U.S. , it's a wonder nobody's even tried it.

Telekom figured out that rural customers outside the coverage area would love what Telekom was providing if they could have access to it. By entering a joint agreement with Astra Deutschland, Telekom added uncoded satellite channels and maintained its on-demand and DVR features. While that's lovely for rural Germans, imagine the possibilities in the U.S.: No more provincial squabbling over cable infrastructure, no more Comcast or Cablevision towns, more competition between multichannel providers, more choice for the consumer. It would have cost T-Mobile a small fortune to get it started -- including all the lobbying it would take to get it past regulators -- but it's a dangerous idea that's a lot sexier to American TV consumers than Catherine Zeta-Jones.

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