Sprint’s move to take a majority stake in Clearwire is garnering plenty of headlines — and for good reasons — but today’s must-read comes from The Washington Posts’s @innovations, which asks if innovation in the U.S. mobile industry is getting soft. Softbank’s $20 billion investment in Sprint essentially is a bet that it can bring new products and services to the U.S., according to the piece, where entrenched players like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have no incentive to experiment with new offerings or business models.
It’s certainly true that Softbank is an innovative player in Japan, and I don’t doubt that the tie-up will give the U.S. mobile industry a much-needed kick in the pants. But it’s a mistake to think that U.S. carriers have ever been innovative in any substantial way: They continue to charge by the voice minute or the amount of data being used, and most revenues are generated by the kind of monthly price plans that were first introduced for voice and SMS more than a decade ago. That stagnation at the carrier level is the reason Apple’s iPhone and App Store were such revolutions, loosening the carriers’ stranglehold on the industry. It will be very interesting to see whether Sprint/Softbank can reclaim some of that power.