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  • Would the iPhone Work in Verizon Wireless’s Stepford Culture?

    February 12th, 2009

    As Macworld’s Jason Snell reminded me this week while recording a segment for The Tech Night Owl LIVE, placing the iPhone in the arsenal of today’s number one mobile carrier, Verizon Wireless, would probably represent a culture shock to them.

    Now I don’t pretend to know what went on behind the scenes as Apple was pitching the iPhone to the various carriers. However, it’s all but certain that Verizon Wireless was one a prime candidate. Indeed, Apple might have even gone to Sprint and T-Mobile. You never know.

    Regardless, they made their so-far exclusive deal with AT&T, and, unlike other cell phone makers, Apple got a lot of authority to change things. The iPhone’s interface doesn’t resemble any other handset, and such features as visual voicemail are singularly original.

    Such concessions, and there were no doubt many that you and I do not know about, give the iPhone a unique position with the wireless carriers. Indeed, it’s very possible that AT&T was also given marching orders to mend their ways, fix customer support problems and improve their network.

    Yes, maybe AT&T did deliver more bars as their ads used to say, but they were also notorious for subpar technical support and flaky connections. However, in the time I’ve had my iPhone, I’ve never had a single problem dealing with AT&T’s technical support. Moreover, the network has shown steady improvement — at least in my corner of the universe — and I’d find it difficult to say that it’s inferior to Verizon Wireless right now.

    But you have to imagine just what obstacles Apple encountered when they went around shopping their new gadget to the wireless industry. Up till now, the carriers have dictated the terms in agreeing to handle a certain make and model phone. Indeed, when you see the ads, the service package and the claims about call quality often rate ahead of the handset.

    Because of heavy subsides, your mobile phone might even cost free or very little. It’s just a premium to get you to sign up for the standard two-year contract. Over that period, the price you pay will, in part, cover the discount you got on the phone.

    It’s also true that the interface design and the way the handset interacts with the carrier’s network is also controlled by the service. The maker of the phone has to feel lucky their products are being accepted and thus they no doubt also make heavy design concessions in order to conform to the dictates of their clients.

    So the Motorola RAZR you acquire from AT&T may look the same as the one from Verizon. Forgetting the fact that the two-way radio supports a different standard, the actual operating system provides features unique to the carrier, not to the device. Some hardware features may also be customized for a specific service’s needs.

    To some degree — as in Windows PC land — the handsets, aside from a few minor feature variations, are interchangeable. When your contract is over, or the handset breaks, you get another. It may be the same model, or a different one, but, aside from some basic hardware specs, you don’t expect a huge difference.

    With the iPhone, Apple holds the cards. I wonder how that fit in with Verizon’s culture, the way they deal with their suppliers. Is it possible that a key reason the iPhone didn’t go to Verizon first is not because they use a different network standard than you find in most other countries, but they wouldn’t let Apple assume virtually full control of the product’s design? At least that’s what some of the pundits suggest.

    Of course, when the exclusive deal with AT&T is done, there’s nothing to stop Apple from making deals with the rest of the major carriers in the U.S. However, you have to wonder what sort of reception they’d get.

    For relatively small T-Mobile, I’d expect that they would find a responsive audience. I might mention in passing something Jason reminded me about during that segment on my tech show. According to the law, the wireless carrier has to unlock a cell phone after two years, at the customer’s request. This would mean, for example, that the first round of iPhones could be legally activated on T-Mobile’s network beginning this summer. You wouldn’t have to jailbreak the phone.

    As far as Sprint and Verizon is concerned, it shouldn’t represent a serious obstacle for Apple to design a CDMA version of the iPhone. The appropriate parts are already used in hundreds of millions of other handsets. There’s no question in my mind that struggling Sprint would be happy to make the appropriate network changes to allow for the iPhone to run on its network with all features intact.

    Verizon? Well, maybe they feel that BlackBerry Storm is a powerful iPhone killer and they don’t need the real thing. But if they wanted to deal with Apple, they’d have to take the deal or be left wanting. It may be the network, but that network would have to change for the iPhone to run on it.



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