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  • 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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