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New iPhone 4S welcomes more carriers -- but skirts the 4G debate


The iPhone 5 turned out to be the iPhone 4S, and apart from a hefty processor upgrade and some compelling new software—notably its Siri voice assistant (CP: Apple iPhone 4S, with Siri, iOS 5, iCloud -- but no 4G)—it looks much like the iPhone 4. More significant than what the iPhone 4S actually is, though, is who can get it. In addition to officially announcing Sprint as a new carrier partner, Apple re-converged its iPhone product line with the 4S, returning to a single product it can distribute in any market to most of the world’s operators.

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With the 4S, Apple is combining CDMA and GSM/high-speed packet access (HSPA) radios into the same device, meaning it will no longer have to maintain two separate supply chains—probably one of the biggest reasons it resisted creating a CDMA variant of the iPhone for so long. Conceivably Apple could keep that unified supply chain going all the way to retail, selling the same device in the same packaging to any customer and letting that customer select a carrier after they unbox the device.

Apple also gets to spread the cost around. The higher cost of a Qualcomm CDMA chip is now born by all carriers and consumers, not just the CDMA providers. Sprint will be the first operator to benefit from the new approach, but you can bet Apple will sell its new network-agnostic device wherever it can, targeting the big CDMA operators in Asia and Latin America and possibly even the Tier II and prepaid operators here in the U.S., most of whom use CDMA technologies. The 4S also magically fills the global roaming gap for the CDMA iPhone, as Verizon and Sprint customers can use it on international GSM networks.

Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Apple won’t support every band for every carrier, T-Mobile being the biggest example. The new iPhone’s HSPA radio won’t tune to T-Mobile’s advanced wireless service (AWS) frequencies, just as its CDMA radio isn’t compatible with the AWS bands Leap Wireless and MetroPCS use for CDMA and EV-DO.

For all of the new radios and antennas in the 4S, there are a few notable missing chips. There’s no LTE, as expected, but there’s also no HSPA+. Rather the 4S’s new HSPA radio will support theoretical speeds of 14.4 Mb/s—a doubling of the iPhone 4’s 7.2 Mb/s maximum. For the record, 14.4 Mb/s is the cut off both T-Mobile and AT&T have used to define whether a phone is 4G. At its unveiling today Apple officials said that the new iPhone would support the same speeds as other phones being marketed as 4G, but they also said they refused to be drawn into a debate over what truly constitutes 4G. Apple may appear to be rising above the 4G marketing fray, but it’s also being quite sly. By refusing to label the 4S as 4G, it avoids potential embarrassment in the future as customers encounter vastly different speeds depending on the operators they’ve selected.

AT&T will most certainly market the 4S as a 4G device, just as it billed other HSPA 14.4 MB/s smartphones as 4G (CP: How ‘4G’ will AT&T’s 4G network be), likely distinguishing itself from the competition with a tag-line such as “The only iPhone that runs on a 4G network”. Sprint and Verizon, however, have made substantially investments in WiMAX and LTE networks, which put their CDMA networks to shame in terms of data speeds. They will want to protect the reputation of those 4G networks at all costs, and they probably couldn’t get away with calling an iPhone with EV-DO speeds a 4G device anyway.

Also, while Apple is correct that the new iPhone on HSPA will match the speeds of other 4G phones, it certainly can’t match all of them. AT&T’s LTE and Verizon’s LTE networks will leave the 4S in the dust. If Apple starts calling the next iPhone a 4G device today, it won’t have much credibility when it finally releases a lightning-fast LTE iPhone of the future. By separating itself from the 4G wars, Apple lets its carrier partners battle it out over issues like network speed and reliability, while it focuses on the design aspects and applications that seem to be far more important to its customers anyway.

Apple also seems to have established a specific release cycle with the launch of the 4S. It followed the same pattern with the iPhone 3G and 3GS, first releasing a newly designed device with new network connectivity options and following it up a year later with a incremental hardware and software improvements. Apple is now doing the same with iPhone 4 as its name, the 4S, implies. That would imply that Apple will only overhaul the iPhone’s design and major capabilities once every two years—which not coincidentally is the length of a typical consumer service contract.


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