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5 T-Mobile Innovations, and 5 More We Lose

BELLEVUE, Wash. (TheStreet) -- T-Mobile may have been fourth place among wireless carriers, but the U.S. is going to miss much more about T-Mobile than Catherine Zeta-Jones commercials.

AT&T's (T) bid for T-Mobile this month won't just eliminate the only other major GSM mobile carrier in the U.S., it officially cuts the U.S. mobile industry's electronic tether to Europe and the innovation that came with it. AT&T will still get a healthy portion of T-Mobile's roughly 34 million customers and more than $21 billion in annual revenue for its $39 billion cash-and-stock investment, but if Ma Bell 2.0 is smart it'll get more than a friendly parting handshake out of the 8% stake it just gave T-Mobile's German parent Deutsche Telekom..

Blaming the lack of a T-Mobile USA version of Apple's (AAPL) iPhone for its demise oversimplifies the situation and completely glosses over how T-Mobile managed to endear itself to the American market in the first place. J.D. Power and Associates ratings are still bestowing T-Mobile with awards for customer care and satisfaction, while T-Mobile's likely new masters at AT&T are rarely accused of caring much about or effectively providing either.

That's been the least of T-Mobile's contributions during its 23 years and multiple incarnations. As nice as it is to have a stellar report card from the customers -- AT&T would surely love T-Mobile's ratings -- that's not even T-Mobile's biggest accomplishment this decade.

TheStreet stepped outside the the current mobile zeitgeist for a moment and singled out T-Mobile's five biggest gifts to the mobile customer, as well as five innovations we may miss out on if Deutsche Telekom's out of the picture. It's a nice little stroll down a tech memory lane until it slams into a wall of lament between us and all the gifts and gadgets that could have been:

T-Mobile Gift 1: The Wi-Fi hotspot
Year given: 1994-2001
Many years ago, people went to coffee shops to sip coffee and have conversations. Records of these kinds of interactions can be found in old reruns of Friends, Frasier and other television shows from the mid-'90s that feature coffee shops eerily devoid of laptops and cafe tables converted into offices.

T-Mobile had a big part in changing all of that, if only accidentally. Back in 1994, AMD employee Brett Stewart struck a licensing deal for the original 802.11 MAC that eventually yielded the IEEE 802.11 standard that makes the wireless you enjoy today possible. Stewart's deal helped him found a little company that year called Plancom (Public LAN Communications). That company eventually evolved into something called MobileStar, which really took off when Starbucks (SBUX) contracted it in 2000 to provide Wi-Fi in all its shops.

Seeing an opportunity when MobileStar faltered and started laying off staff, T-Mobile ensured the company lived by acquiring it in 2001, expanding its HotSpots into airport terminals and other public spaces. At one point, PC makers indicated that their laptop was Wi-Fi-ready by slapping a little pink "HotSpot" sticker onto the keyboard.

Though Starbucks eventually bounced the HotSpots for AT&T service, later free, T-Mobile's place as a footnote in wireless history was already secure. Not only is Wi-Fi a standard feature in even the most basic "smart" devices; it's the reason this paragraph was written and filed from a train.

T-Mobile Gift 2: The BlackBerry
Year given: 2002
If you wanted a smartphone nine years ago, there was exactly one game in town, and T-Mobile was the only one playing it. Touted with such slogans as "Want text with your voice?" the first U.S. BlackBerry device from Research in Motion (RIMM) was billed by T-Mobile as a "wireless hand-held email solution" and never really lived down that stuffy reputation.

This wasn't a gadget and it wasn't a fun sensory device filled with games and apps. It was a business tool: An electronic leash that let your bosses and clients pull the chain whenever the mood struck and turned eight-hour jobs into 24/7 "enterprises." It was the starting point for everything that came afterward and a huge boon for T-Mobile.

Sadly, critics still say the carrier that introduced the U.S. to the smartphone was undone by one. Like the BlackBerry's makers, T-Mobile just didn't seem to see the iPhone coming and has been playing catch-up ever since. At least it had those five years.

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