One of the biggest slams against Apple’s iPhone when it was released last summer was its reliance on AT&T’s aging EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) network.
Actually, it was a supersmart thing for Apple to do. Now, before you hit that comment area with all the vitriol, let me explain myself - this isn’t about speed, and it’s not as simple as “faster equals better.” You see, I’m a bandwidth nut, too. I have 100Mbit/sec. fiber here in Paris, where I’m living for now, and I like to use a 3G card - it allows access to broadband, third-generation cell phone networks—for high-speed wireless on the road.
I’m more than willing to pay for the extra speed. But what good is speed when your phone’s battery is dead?
Therein lies the rub: Apple had to choose between battery life and speed. A year ago, 3G chips were battery hogs, a development phase they are only now leaving behind. The last-generation 3G chips simply weren’t meant for continuous wireless access, and it shows. With my Nokia N95, I can browse the Web over a 3G network for about an hour before the battery is dead - even less if I tether it as a modem to my laptop. The same is true for my Samsung Blackjack 2 Windows Mobile device.
That isn’t the mobile experience that people are looking for.
Apple could have compensated for an energy-thirsty - and more expensive - chip by building in a much bigger battery or eliminating some of the brightness of the screen or even touting what would then have been the iPhone’s a two-hour battery life. But doing so would have affected the iPhone’s size and weight, added cost and left users with a less-than-stellar experience. That’s hardly the way for the company to shoehorn its way into a new and highly-competitive market.
A little bit of networking background: An iPhone in the U.S. generally connects to AT&T’s EDGE network for intensive data-transmission chores like Web browsing and e-mail with in-the-field download speeds of 70Kbit/sec. to 135Kbit/sec., though technically the top-end is a little higher. In contrast, AT&T’s 3G Broadband network offers download speeds of 600Kbit/sec. to 1.4Mbit/sec - and is still to be rolled out in major metro areas.
Apple’s choice: Speed or battery life. Limited coverage vs. widespread coverage. Higher cost and bigger form factor, or cheaper and smaller.
Realistically, the EDGE-based package Apple delivered was the best compromise. It was also a smart move financially.
The reason devices like the Nokia N95 can get away with having a 3G chip in them and not die out in an hour is that people aren’t using those phones to browse the Web nearly as much as people do with the iPhone. Survey after survey shows that iPhone users are surfing much more than users of any other device. The iPhone also allows you to watch YouTube and other online H.264 files, which can be bandwidth hogs. Mobile Safari on the iPhone gets used 50 times more often than any other mobile browser, according to Google (if you measure Web searches). Think that would be the case if the iPhone only got two hours of battery life?
In fact, the iPhone’s easy-to-use, just-like-the-Internet browser is one reason why users have complained about slow download times. They use the browser often enough to see the limits of the EDGE network. Other devices like the extremely popular T-Mobile Sidekick—whose Danger OS was recently bought by Microsoft to help bolster its consumer mobile phone business—also deliver unlimited EDGE browsing. But because the Internet and browser functions are more limited, you don’t hear a lot of complaining.
The EDGE-3G dustup isn’t the only issue that iPhone owners have noted. One of the most controversial parts of the iPhone ecosystem in the U.S. is the fact that AT&T is the only carrier the phone works with. (There are similar one-carrier plans in Europe.) People either love the simplicity or hate being restricted to one provider. The plans offered in the UK $59.99, $79.99 and $99.99 - all offer unlimited data use, a huge boon to iPhone owners and another reason why the iPhone is rated so highly. Would AT&T have been able to offer the same rate for high-speed, 3G browsing? Doubtful. With 3G, operations such as watching online movies become much more compelling. Sure, you can do that just fine over a Wi-Fi network, but it isn’t a realistic option over EDGE.
With 3G as an option, relying on Wi-Fi for better data speeds wouldn’t be as necessary. In fact, some users would likely forgo Wi-Fi entirely and just use 3G all day—a huge drain on the wireless carrier networks. For exactly that reason, I anticipate a price increase of $10 to $30 a month when the 3G iPhones are introduced later this year. So if you really want that speed, you’ll most likely have to pay more for it.
Any such price hike would also allow Apple to offer overlapping models, giving people a choice between faster and pricier 3G models and cheaper EDGE-based versions.
Keep in mind that AT&T’s 3G network rollout in the U.S. is also limited. Most U.S. iPhone users would still be browsing on an EDGE network—even if they upgraded to a new 3G-based iPhone. AT&T is only now upgrading most of its larger markets with 3G access. It’s a different story in Europe, where 3G is almost ubiquitous; the outrage over EDGE has been much stronger there.
Even so, a lot of first-generation iPhone users will want to jump on the 3G bandwagon, becoming repeat buyers and no doubt spurring sales beyond what they would have been over the same period had Apple started with a 3G iPhone.
Did Apple know that this would be a major flash point, especially in Europe? Probably. Is it likely to repeat the move in Asia? Probably not. I don’t think Apple would dare introduce a non-3G version in Asia (although EDGE iPhones seem to be doing alright in China). But that’s looking ahead. Looking back to last year, I’d say that - given the iPhone’s success so far - going with the EDGE network was both a necessary compromise and a smart move on Apple’s part.
Sometimes slower is better.
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared on Macworld's sister site, Computerworld.