Saturday, October 04, 2003

Lawyerly Gadget of our Time


Back in the big firm, people wondered how come I used a Globe cellular phone when I was doing a lot of work for Smart. I used to reply in jest -- well, the only thing smart about it is it's name. What do you know? Today, I am taking everything back. As a happy user of a new and sparkling Smart Amazing Phone, I think Smart has come of age. It is now really living up to its name.

Picazo Law Office (my old firm) has been the counsel to Smart from the time that it was just a group of radio hobbyists with a weird telephone franchise until the present when it is widely-regarded as the telecom industry's multi-billion peso money maker ran by people with Ivy league MBAs. In my early years as an associate of Picazo Law Office, I handled some of Smart's cases in the far corners of the country, some as far-flung as Matalom, Leyte, a coastal town six hours away from Tacloban. But those cases were mostly nuisance suits by devious lawyers who thought they could make a giant corporation spit money at their command. Nothing major. When I left Picazo, I was liberated from these cases. You might also want to say that my career can be divided into two: the Smart and the post-Smart era. But the early years of Smart were exciting times for me and for the company.

Flashback to circa 1995

In the advent of the Philippine cellular phone industry, Smart took the "appropriate technology" gamble, as it were. Instead of getting into the expensive digital bandwagon (which Globe and Islacom touted), Smart went with the cheap analog technology. Industry naysayers said the technology was obsolete. But Doy Vea, then president and CEO of Smart, and his group of marketing wizards held on to the point -- the Filipinos didn't need a high tech phone; they needed a phone. It's like the people's need for a car. It didn't matter if it was a Mercedes. It could be a stainless Sarao so long as it rolled. And all that the Filipinos needed was to hear the voice from the other side of the line wherever in the Philippines they may be. And so, Smart went on an analog cellular roll-out program that had Globe and Islacom eating dust. In view of the fact that it was cheaper to set- up analog cell sites than digital cell sites by a ratio of about 6 to 1, Smart easily covered the entire Philippines in no time, as Globe and Islacom tried to play catch up with their capital intensive enterprise. Finally, the Filipinos had a phone. I could still remember that day when I was sitting on the terrace of our house in far away Pola, Or. Mindoro and I was barking instructions to my secretary in Makati -- something that months back was an impossibility because the nearest phone booth was 100 kilometers away.

It was boom time for Smart until Globe showed us how deaf and mute people can use the phone. The wonders of digital technology allowed text messaging. This enabled people to communicate by simply typing texts on their phone pads. Their need for a telephone already satisfied, the Filipinos soon realized that analog technology sucked. People got drop calls as often as they got drops of water from a faucet. No caller ID. You couldn't tell if the person who was calling was your girlfriend or your boss. In addition, text messaging was cheap and less invasive. People needed not to call when a simple "ok" could be relayed by typing "K" and sending it away. And their phones, oh-- they were bigger than the bananas in the grocery. That was when I decided to switch phones from Smart to Globe and I started that joke about Smart and its name because its analog phones were not text-capable.

The Erap years

Then, Smart made the big switch from analog to digital. Unfortunately, it had to deal with the text interconnection problem with Globe. Globe refused to hook up its text messaging service with Smart. Smart also couldn't get the court order to force Globe to link up. That staggering defeat of Smart when the Court of Appeals denied Smart's prayer for a mandatory injunction on texting interconnection echoed in the halls of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) as one of the major upsets in the history of telecommunications law. (This case was handled by another group of lawyers and so this defeat will not appear in my resume.)

Well, as many people know by now, Smart found a political solution to the problem when Erap came into the picture. He summoned one of the Ayalas of Globe (Don Jaime Zobel, I think) to Malacanang to make peace with Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP) of Smart. As Zobel entered the room, Erap, standing from his seat beside MVP, blurted, "Heto no pala eh. Tara na, ia-announce na natin sa press.", as the group proceeded to the press conference where it was announced that the interconnection problem had been solved. Erap was not going to take no for answer and just the gesture of accepting the invitation to go to Malacanang, did it in for Globe. I couldn't make out anything of the expression on the face of Mr. Zobel when the news came out in the papers the following day. It was a major lesson on Philippine business and politics.It was also one of the little things that outraged me as an anti-Erap advocate for which reason I refused to switch back to Smart, even if Smart had won the text interconnection war.

My other beef with this company during the Erap years was when it joined the other major corporations of the Philippines who refused to advertise in the Philippine Daily Inquirer as a gesture of support to Erap. The Inquirer was Erap's staunchest enemy. To please him, his allies from big business orchestrated a boycott of the newspaper. Smart, with its sustained campaign for dominance, ran millions of pesos worth of print advertisements, especially on weekends. It was such a pity that Inquirer was deprived of that revenue for a period of time just to please that buffoon in Malacanang.
Along with the boycott of the other advertisers, Smart's refusal to advertise with the Inquirer seriously threatened the existence of the Inquirer and angered many freedom loving folks like me.

Oh, what this phone can do

The past is past and as I clutch my new Smart Amazing Phone, I am willing to forgive Smart for siding with Erap during his time. Big business is motivated by profit and profit guys have no balls when it comes to politics. There is nothing much I can do with that. But just look at what I can do with this phone. I can surf the web in clear and colorful html. I can read, CNN, Salon, nytimes and other favorites in the car. I can browse at Supreme Court decisions and laws without need of a bulky laptop computer. I can check out Roger Ebert's review of a Hollywood film as I stand in line for the tickets in the theater. I can read the breaking news from the Inquirer website as I sit in the barbershop. I can find out what Dean Jorge Bocobo is cooking up in his blog while sipping coffee in a restaurant. I can blog from the toilet seat. I can send and receive email with a push of a button while waiting for the roll call in court. I can shoot a picture or a video of my daughter and email it to the world. It has never been this way before. Connecting the cellular phone to the internet was a giant inventive step. The possibilities are endless. I can truly say, I now have the world's biggest repository of information in the power of my hand. Indeed, for all its political sins, Smart found its redemption in its perseverance for technological innovation. The Smart Amazing Phone is not just a phone. It's the evolution of the cellular phone: a true testament to the genius and creativity of man.

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