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Mind the Gap Saturday: The mobile worlds of China and the West

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Mind the Gap Saturday is a feature every Saturday where Blognation China tells its readership the differences - the gap - in the tech, mobile and enterprise worlds between China and the Western World.

Back in the early 1990s, the humble mobile phone was the exclusive realm of the rich few. Known as the dageda ("big brother big") for a full-scape mobile phone and the ergeda ("second brother big") for an outgoing-calls-only service, the mobile phone was prohibitively expensive, prepaid services were totally unknown of, and the mobile world we've come to know of today simply did not exist.

Fast forward into the 2000s. Well into the new century, mobile mania has gripped China - big-time - to levels that can only be compared with the keitai frenzy seen in Japan. Mobile phones have gotten thinner, smaller, and indeed, easier to lose. Even my cousin - just 18 as we speak - has a mobile phone. (Yours truly jumped on the mobile bandwagon at the young age of 16 in Switzerland.)

Everyone's going crazy about mobile phones in China. Yet, behind the frenzy, there are differences between how mobiles tick in the West and what makes them tick in the East.

The mobile for free: only in the West

Switzerland is absolutely chock-full of "gratis Handys", in essence "mobile phones for free". Sign up for a subscription with Swisscom (or Sunrise, or Orange), and you get the phone free - provided you can commit for at least a year or more. You kind of win at the end of this day - you're phoning away on a brand-new mobile phone - but it's the telcos who are winning at the end of every other day, sucking your cash away from your phone calls and SMS text messages.

In China, it's quite the opposite. There are virtually no free mobile phones at all - not even if you remain a China Mobile or China Unicom customer for life. The purchase of the mobile phone is almost always separate from the purchase of the subscription.

So which model is better? If you're strapped for cash in the short run, the model in the West may look more attractive. But at the end of the day, you'd want the Chinese version of the story. There are no real hidden costs - or, at that, unfree subscription limits - so if you want to hang up for good, you can just go ahead and do that without penalty in China.

China: land of the unlocked SIM cards

We all know how complex and irritating locked SIM cards can get. (They most often come with those for-free mobile phones locked on a year-long subscription.) Dumped your subscription? You wish you hadn't. Your phone won't really work any more if you dump your number - locked SIM cards are common currency in the Western world.

China, however, is totally foreign to the notion of locked SIM cards. Phones may cost a fortune, but you can phone in the total comfort knowing that no phone in China is sold with a SIM card lock in place.

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