Tech consumers frustrated by Canadian roadblocks
On Tuesday, Skype introduced a version of its voice-over internet phone service for Apple's iPhone, and as the company reported Thursday, it had already been downloaded more than one million times in the first two days.
What do these two product launches have in common? Neither is available in Canada.
For consumers who follow technology product launches, this isn't particularly shocking, but rather the latest in a series of disappointments.
Canadians waited over a year before Apple's iPhone was sold north of the border. Microsoft Corp.'s Zune, the software company's answer to Apple's iPod, arrived in Canada two years after its U.S. release. Earlier this year, Amazon released Kindle 2, the second version of its e-book reader; Canadians still haven't been able to purchase the original Kindle.
As well, many websites, such as the internet radio service Pandora and movie downloading website Hulu, are all blocked to Canadians because of distribution rights or copyright issues.
Technology consultant Mark Evans may have summed up the mood of technophiles in this country with a blog post he wrote Monday, entitled "Tired of Being a Digital Peasant."
"The general theme is frustration," Evans told CBC News. "We live in this country where high-speed internet access is ubiquitous and mobile phone penetration is growing, and yet we can't keep up. We're watching from the sidelines."
Comparison shopping easier
If Canadians are more aware of the discrepancy between U.S. and Canadian release dates, it's because the internet has put that information at our fingertips, said Kaan Yigit, president of consumer technology consultancy Solutions Research Group.
"With news spreading in internet-time now, we are able to compare much faster," said Yigit. "For many things, I think it's only a handful who are concerned. But for high-profile brands or services, lack of parity between US and Canada becomes big news or a point of consumer aggravation more quickly."
At times, delays hit home because they seem to defy geography. Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion launched the BlackBerry Bold in Canada last year before it did so in the United States, but after the handheld device had launched in countries such as Chile, Ecuador and Turkey.
And last week, Air Canada said it was on target to offer on-board internet on U.S.-bound routes, but would be unable to offer similar service in Canadian airspace because of a number of regulatory and business hurdles.
The reasons offered for delays are myriad. Canada is a relatively small market, and therefore not an economic priority for many companies launching products. We have different intellectual property laws to consider, different distribution rights to negotiate and different regulations to work with. Companies must also negotiate separate deals with our telecommunications carriers to bring their increasingly network-dependent services and products to Canadian consumers.
Thomas Purves, who runs the Wireless North blog, said a lack of competition in the Canadian telecommunications market has given carriers a strong hand when negotiating with outside companies who want to offer their services. Rogers, for example, was in a strong position with Apple because it was the only carrier in Canada that's network used the Global System for Mobile (GSM) standard compatible with the iPhone.
Evans points the finger at antiquated intellectual property laws ill-suited to digital media, and said the Canadian government's efforts at copyright reform have yet to produce a model equitable to both rights creators and consumers.
Small market or small-town mindset?
Yigit said its natural for Canada to get things late in the cycle, or not at all, because the market isn't attractive enough.
Ken Coates, the dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Waterloo, said the problem also rests squarely with mainstream consumers, who unlike their tech-savvy counterparts are slow to question pricing and availability in Canada. In this environment, technophiles become modern-day Cassandras, doomed to know the future but have no one believe them.
"The most serious problem rests with uncritical and undemanding consumers," he wrote in the Toronto Star on March 15. "Save for a tiny number of tech fanatics, few Canadians have even an inkling about what is going on with the digital media in other countries."
Coates, a Canadian historian, traces the roots of this conservatism to Canada's early history as a country of small towns relying on few suppliers.
"Most Canadians put very few demands on retailers," he told CBC News. "We think we're doing well and we tend to take what businesses give us — but there is a tonne of stuff we're not seeing."
Canada's proximity to the United States, the launching pad for many consumer electronics products, may also skew our perception of lagging behind the rest of the world, although Coates argues our proximity to the U.S. can also blind us to the fact countries like Japan and South Korea are even further ahead in technology such as mobile telephony.
Still, like poor Charlie Bucket looking longingly at the Chocolate Factory, Canadians with an ear to the ground of technology news might be forgiven for wanting products so bad they can taste them.
Unlocking technology not for everyone
For the most tech-savvy, the delays and omissions are problematic, but not an impediment. Grey market iPhones, "unlocked" from their host carrier became a hot property in Canada in 2007 after the product launched in the United States a year before coming here, in the same way grey market satellite dishes dotted the sides of homes in the 1990s. Consumers get around geo-fenced online content by registering US accounts to services such as iTunes in order to access content not available in Canada.
"Some people try to work around it, you can spoof your IP or work around the rules that way, but it's not easy to do or it's not convenient to do," said Purves.
Evans agrees, noting that while anyone is capable of buying a satellite dish off the street or across the border, it takes a combination of desire and know-how to hack an iPhone.
"I think the reaction of most people isn't to pick up hacking," he said. "They are more likely to just say 'whatever.'"
Yigit said this "quiet resignation" is why few Canadians raise a fuss when product launches pass them by. And Evans says, at the end of the day, the delays might actually help companies sell products.
"The news of a delay has a way of seeping into the mainstream, and may give press to products people were unaware of," said Evans. "Rather than turn off people, having to wait may actually build up pent-up demand."