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Elgan: Who wants a custom cell phone?

Two companies this week announced roll-your-own cell phones. Are carriers paying attention?

February 8, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Two different companies this week announced two different visions for customizable cell phones. Are we entering a new era, where cell phones are used and sold like laptops — where you snap on extra functionality on the fly or have them built to order?

An Israeli company called Modu yesterday unveiled a GSM phone due in October that enables customization. The core of the Modu product is a tiny phone designed to slide into special "jackets," which are phone exteriors with extra functionality, plus software that instructs the phone about special color schemes and other features. For example, a user might use a "jacket" with a nice camera in it for personal use, then replace that with a "jacket" with a QWERTY keyboard for business use. The company also envisions jackets that aren't phones, such as GPS devices.

Another company called zzzPhone announced build-to-order phones, and claims that buying its phone will be like ordering a PC from Dell. You use its Web site to choose the features you want, and the company will build it for you. Its base model costs $149. You can choose from a range of colors and add additional features, such as a 7-megapixel camera, TV tuner or GPS for additional cost.

The company's initial press release, distributed Monday, said zzzPhone is an American company that makes the phones in a Chinese factory. The release and the company's Web site suggest that the whole operation may be a little shady. For example, the site's specifications page says the zzzPhones will be powered by "Windows Mobile or equivalent." It doesn't know? Still, it's an interesting concept never before tried.

Both Modu and zzzPhone are accurately tapping into unmet demand in the consumer and business handset markets. But it's not demand for their products per se. What they've identified is that phone buyers are fed up with being locked into one single phone for all uses and unsatisfied with the limited handset choices offered by carriers.

Major U.S. carriers have long suffered from a blindness about what people want in handsets, so I'm going to spell it out for them: People want more than one — to be able to use more than one cell phone per data plan and per phone number without being gouged.

If you want two cell phones, the carriers force you into using two different phone numbers and double the cost of the basic wireless plan. (I'm old enough to remember when home network providers doubled your fee when you wanted to add a second PC to the network. Eventually they got a clue.)

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