Macworld Expo #3: The Worst Thing About the iPhone

January 10th, 2007

From stem to stern, you are seeing the iPhone dissected, boosted, obliterated, and everything in between. Whatever happened at the CES this week doesn’t matter at all. It was all Apple from the moment Steve Jobs took the stage at Moscone West Tuesday morning.

Did Bill Gates give a keynote? Sure he did, but did he say anything memorable? What did he say? Doesn’t anyone care or will anyone remember his peerless words 20 seconds from now even if you grab a story about it at your favorite news site and read it carefully?

But there is one Achilles Heel of the iPhone that isn’t being mentioned very often. I’ve already alluded it, but I think it’s number one with a bullet, and, unfortunately, it’s not something that Steve Jobs or Cingular will discuss publicly.

Now you’ve seen those commercials, where Cingular claims it has fewer dropped calls than the rest of this country’s wireless services. But that’s subject to interpretation and you can certainly do anything with numbers, such as that foolish claim a while back that iTunes sales had tanked at the same time they had virtually doubled.

While I’m not always a fan of Consumer Reports magazine, particularly when it comes to the way they treat Macs, I’m not going to quibble with their reader surveys about the reliability of products and services. In a recent article on wireless providers, Cingular was among the worst in a number of major cities. This is something, alas, that Steve Jobs and Apple can’t fix even if the iPhone is indeed the best product of its kind on the planet.

Of course, it’s perfectly true that the quality of cell phone service in this country is generally awful anyway. I have gone through several services, and Verizon Wireless is said to be at the top of the list, and they are better than the others I’ve tried. But that doesn’t prevent garbled connections, dropped calls, the occasional inability to dial out, and none of this is dependent upon any particular phone. It’s a general condition.

So even assuming the iPhone does every single thing Steve Jobs claims it does, and there are more features coming in the next six months, perhaps inherited from Mac OS X Leopard, that won’t change a thing as far as call quality is concerned.

But if the iPhone suffers from these all-too-common problems, will you blame Cingular for its inability to get its service working properly, or Apple for building a phone that doesn’t fix these ills? Yes, the iPhone can have state-of-the-art hardware to minimize connection issues, but it cannot eliminate them. It’s not Apple’s job.

So did Steve Jobs make a big mistake to lock Apple’s phone into Cingular and not, say, Verizon Wireless? Not necessarily. The iPhone is a quad-band GSM device that is commonly called a “world phone,” which means that it’ll theoretically be capable of being used in many places around the planet. GSM devices use a SIM card for network configuration so you should be able to simply replace the card to move to a different carrier.

In practice, however, theories don’t always work. No doubt Cingular’s network has been tailored to function properly with the iPhone, and it’s also quite possible that other carriers won’t be able to support all its features. However, I suspect the agreement won’t be forever tethered to one company, and that other carriers could get involved later on should they wish to provide the appropriate level of support. It’s also very possible, I suppose, for Apple to make a CDMA version that’ll work with the lies of Verizon, Alltel and Sprint.

There is also the hope that the mobile phone industry will sufficiently impressed by this new device to make at least some effort to get their acts together and fix up their service. Why should it be so hard to get dependable wireless connections after all these years?

Even if Apple could deliver an unlocked phone with all or most features intact, it may cost too much. The announced purchase price of the iPhone, high though it may be, requires a two-year contract with Cingular, and it will cost you a lot to get out of it, if that’s what you want to do. In exchange for such deals, the wireless carriers subsidize the purchase of phones, and sometimes they offer special deals if you renew.

As a Verizon customer, for example, I receive a “new-every-two” feature, which means that I can buy a new phone at that second anniversary, and receive a $100 discount. Sure, I have to agree to a new two-year deal to get the best price, but I just received, for example, an LG VX8600 — a superior successor to the popular Chocolate phone — for next to nothing.

So for now, the iPhone is Cingular’s baby. Let’s hope they prove worthy of this stellar opportunity.

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12 Responses to “Macworld Expo #3: The Worst Thing About the iPhone”

  1. ja says:

    No Gene.

    The worst part of the iPhone is the PHONE part, everything else is pretty terrific 🙂

  2. Joe Fernandez says:

    I wish Apple had made (instead) the same version without the phone. Cingular service is not the best, and being tied to Cingular for a “multi-year agreement” is a BIG mistake on Apple’s part. Not mentioned in any of the posts I’ve seen are what the MONTHLY costs will be to have EDGE / WiFi service in addition to a voice plan with Cingular (a good guesstimate is about $160 before taxes). In addition to the high cost of the phone, that is above what most wireless consumers are willing to pay.

  3. Dana Sutton says:

    One thing about the iPhone announcement puzzles me, and makes me think the story isn’t yet complete. We’ve been told a.) it’s going to be closely tied to Cingular and b.) that it will have four bands so it will work worldwide. But Cingular is pretty much an American outfit, isn’t it? So how is the iPhone going to be marketed in other countries? Apple still has a lot of explaining to do.

  4. Scott says:

    I can’t comment on the quality of Cingular’s serivce. Cingular isn’t available in my county. And, no, I don’t live in some remote place where cows outnumber people 1000:1. I live about 3.5 hours north of #1 Infinite Loop.

    So, no matter what the costs or quality of service, the iPhone simply isn’t an option. I guess I’ll have wait until AT&T buys Verizon, U.S. Cellular, Sprint, or TMoble.

  5. Richard Campbell says:

    FYI: GSM is the choice for the iPhone, so eventually any service providor that uses GSM can use the iPhone. Most of Europe is GSM. 3.5 hours north of #1 Infinite loop would be Canada ;-). AT&T owns Cingular, AT&T is the major owner of Rogers.. Rogers is a GSM carrier..therefore probably iPhone in Canada.

  6. Scott says:

    3.5 hours north of #1 Infinite Loop by car (depending on the traffic on US101, driven it many times), not by plane (would 3.5 hours even get you through customs?).

  7. David says:

    I’m sure GSM has some advantages over CDMA, but I can’t help wonder why it hasn’t caught on in Asia where cell networks are far more advanced than anything in North America. Of course nothing is stopping Apple from offering CDMA phones in markets where such technology is dominant. Even so even US based writers are noting the fact that EDGE is significantly slower than EVDO. I can’t imagine the people the iPhone is aimed at will be happy to wait for their EDGE data while a faster network already exists in many places thanks to Verizon, Telus, etc.

  8. John says:

    I use Cingular around the country and it works very well for me. I will say that the first two phones I had did drop a lot of calls and could not call from some areas. Now I use a Sony Erircsson 637 and performance is great. My experience is anecdotal but I wonder how many of the problems with cell phones are due to old phones with poor RF front ends?

  9. bquady says:

    Can I pick a nit? You seem to like the “new every two” part of your Verizon purchase, and you think of it as a benefit. Dude, that’s a cost, not a benefit, at least to my way of thinking. They charge you enough during your service contract that they have some extra money left over, which they dangle in front of you to make it look more attractive to sign another overpriced contract. Sounds like some kind of junkie logic.

    I know, that’s just the way the market is set up right now. I was kind of hoping that Apple can break us out of that, perhaps by selling us a fine device which does voip+wifi+a dash of 3G. Perhaps in later models? To me, getting us off of the cell carrier merry-go-round is the killer app.

  10. Bill says:

    I suspect it only includes EDGE to keep down the monthly fee.

    I.e., EDGE data access will be “free” with your voice plan, though it’s not much faster than dialup in real world use.

    True broadband access over cellular would likely double your monthly fee.

    And GSM broadband is not very widespread in the U.S. (vs. CDMA EVDO which I can get here in a city

  11. Bill says:

    of less than 150,000 population

  12. Ken Heins says:

    I live in a city of less than 150,000 population and proud of it!

    Have been a Mac user since 1988 and want an iPhone!

    Wake up, Apple.

    20 years ago I worked for an auto manufacturer who was convinced that all of our priorities should be directed to the top 10% dealers in unit sales.( LA, and New York area) I showed them that the dealers from the 11% to 50% ranking actually were responsible for 70% of the total unit sales. They didnt want to hear it, I dont work for them any more, even though they build great cars and I own one.

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