Tag Archives: iPhone

Apple, Cricket & Virgin. Hints of the future?

Before I could finish a long overdue post on Apple’s evolving relationship with mobile carriers, events overtook me. Since I started writing that post, Virgin Mobile and Cricket Wireless will soon be selling iPhones for use with their pre-paid plans. The pre-paid plans offer significantly lower monthly rates than traditional iPhone plans from AT&T and Verizon, particularly, but the hardware is significantly more expensive than the subsidized prices offered by those carriers. I find these developments interesting for a few reasons.

First, I it fits the pattern I described in my earlier post in that Apple is experimenting with more expensive phones in combination with cheaper, more flexible service.

Second, it is coming sooner than I anticipated, in ways I didn’t anticipate. I thought it would start with TMobile, but it is instead starting with Sprint, which owns Virgin Mobile, and Cricket, which makes heavy use of Sprint’s network. While I thought this would start with TMobile, it makes sense that it is starting with Sprint, since Sprint, like TMobile, is a second tier carrier which needs to be open to new business models in order to stay in the game at all.

I’m interested to see what comes next. I expect we’ll hear more by the time the next iPhone is released, likely by fall. I wouldn’t be surprised too if iOS 6, which will be announced at Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference next week, contains new and improved features that help marginalize the mobile carriers.

Apple’s Evolving Relationship with Mobile Carriers

I’ve been thinking about Apple’s relationship to mobile carriers, and the related question of whether their overall marketshare matters for a while. I’m going to take a little time now to outline the evolution of my thinking, and the conclusions I’ve drawn.

It started when I realized how Apple was going to use iCloud to tie OS X and iOS apps together to provide a seamless, pervasive computing environment, which I finally got around to writing about last fall. That led to the realization that although iCloud was designed to be as efficient as possible when moving data around between devices, it was still bringing Apple into conflict with mobile carriers.  Apple was moving towards a future where fast connectivity was always available at the same time the carriers were raising prices and eliminating unlimited data plans.

One of the big innovations of the original iPhone is that Apple “owned” the customer relationship. Yes, people paid AT&T for service, and many people bought their iPhones from AT&T, but Apple controlled the phone, Apple provided the support, and the software updates, and AT&T could not load up the iPhone with their logos or crummy apps. This was unprecedented, and it scared the carriers, and drove them into the arms of Android. Nevertheless, the carriers still held an important piece of territory: your phone number. Numbers are portable, but as long as people are making phone calls and using SMS, its hard to switch carriers often.

However, we’ve seen a rise in services that bypass the carriers. GoogleVoice gives you a carrier independent phone number for SMS and phone calls. Apple FaceTime can use an email address as an identifier, and now, so does Messages, their SMS substitute. Add to those other services, like Skype, Viber, Ping and TextFree. The carriers are slowly but surely being marginalized, but for the time being, they are still in a position to dictate prices, because hardware subsidies and the accompanying service contracts inhibit the formation of a truly competitive marketplace. It’s clear to me though, something is going to have to give.

I think Republic Wireless may be a sign of things to come. Republic offers mobile phone and data service without a contract for $19/month. To take advantage of the service, you need to spend $200 on phone with a special version of the Android operating system that routes voice calls over WiFi when available. When WiFi isn’t available, they use Sprint’s network. It isn’t hard to imagine Apple moving towards something similar.

In broad outline, I think Apple’s goal is to ensure that the mobile carriers are unable to pose a challenge to Apple’s vision for the products and services they want to offer their users. Ideally, they would disappear from the customer’s view all together, becoming suppliers to Apple. How Apple achieves this remains to be seen, but I think the ingredients are:

  • Apple has lots of capital, and they use that capital to gain a favored position with suppliers to ensure that they have a ready supply of key inputs, like flash memory,  high resolution screens, and bleeding edge manufacturing tooling, while depriving competitors of access.
  • Mobile carriers need a lot of capital.
  • Second-tier mobile carriers, like Sprint and T-mobile, risk going out of business if they can’t bring in enough revenue to do the network upgrades they need to stay competitive.  This is why Sprint sells service to carriers like Republic Wireless.
  • T-mobile doesn’t yet have the iPhone in the US.
  • Moore’s law can manifest itself in improvements to price, performance, and power-consumption. So far, much of the progress in the smartphone industry has been channeled towards improving performance. I think we may be reaching a point of diminishing returns, performance-wise.  This may push down pricing to the point that carrier-subsidies are less and less relevant.
These factors could play out a few different ways, but I’ll suggest an illustrative example:
  1. T-mobile starts selling the next iPhone.  Apple gives T-Mobile very favorable terms on payments, allowing T-mobile to invest in their infrastructure. In exchange, T-mobile iPhone customers get unlimited data.
  2. The 2013 iPhone comes at a lower price. Existing carriers are happy that they can reduce their subsidy, and more customers find an unlocked iPhone within reach.
  3. The next iPad can be used with any compatible carrier.
  4. Unlocked iPhones start showing up in the US that can be used on any carrier. The hardware already supports this; when an iPhone 4s is “born” it is capable of connecting to GSM networks like AT&T and TMobile, and CDMA networks like Sprint and Verizon, but when the phone is sold, these capabilities are limited.
  5. Apple starts offering subsidized phones with their own mobile service.

However, since I started writing this post, there have been some new developments, which I’ll post about separately.

Apple stiffs iPad owners on RAM

New details of the iPhone 4 have me pretty pissed at Apple.

I’ve dismissed most of the criticisms leveled against the Apple iPad as clueless.  The few I’ve been sympathetic to are things that can and likely will be fixed with a software update.  There is, however, one thing that’s been bothering me, the iPad only has 256MB of RAM, like the iPhone 3 Gs.

Until I got my own iPad, the 256MB RAM limit was just an academic annoyance, but it quickly became clear that it was a chintzy move on Apple’s part. Mobile Safari on the iPad only lets you open 8 different “tabs” at once, but it often struggles to keep even a fraction of that number loaded.  Often if I switch between tabs, it ends up having to reload the pages, which is slow.  It’s even worse if I switch to another app and then back, then it often has to reload all the pages.

I put some of this down to the fact that it was the first release of iOS for the iPad, and assumed it would be improved any day by a software update (which has yet to materialize).  A software update could only go so far though, since the larger screen size on the iPad would likely drive up memory requirements.  And, of course, the eagerly awaited update of iOS 4 for the iPad would bring multitasking for third party apps, which would drive up memory requirements even more.

Well, now I learn that the iPhone 4 is confirmed to have 512MB of RAM, twice whats in the iPad (even though it has a smaller screen resolution).  This comes less than three months after shipping the first iPad, and less than two months after shipping the iPad WiFi-3G model I have.   I know that things move pretty fast in the tech industry, which is why I didn’t get bent out of shape when apple cut the price of the original iPhone by $200 only a few months after launch, but this really pisses me off.

The poor experience “multitasking” with Apple’s own apps on the iPad is the really my only big complaint with the device, and now its pretty clear that it’s likely that annoyance is going to extend to 3rd party apps when iOS 4 makes it to the iPad this fall.

“Real” OS X Apps on the iPad, Are You Crazy ?!?!?

I’m posting this from my iPhone, so I can’t be bothered to name names, but trust me when I tell you, there are a lot of people criticising Apple for basing the iPad off the iPhone OS, rather than making it capable of running Macintosh applications by using a touch-enabled version of the version of OS X that runs on Mac desktops and laptops. I understand the impulse, but these people are either crazy, or they just aren’t thinking things through.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. There is just no damn way to profitably sell a device that matches the price, performance and portability of the iPad that also runs existing Mac apps. This will change in the future, but it’s just not something that can happen this year.

There are many reasons for this, but it really starts with the fact that modern Macs use Intel CPUs and Intel CPUs just aren’t as power efficient for a given level of performance as the ARM CPU in the iPad, iPhone and other mobile devices. So, an iPad that runs existing Mac apps would have to have an Intel CPU, and so would have shorter battery-life, which hurts portability. This could be compensated for with a larger battery, but a larger battery would be heavier, which hurts portability and add expense which would already be higher, because intel CPUs cost more than ARM CPUs.

So on the hardware side, price and weight are two strikes against an iPad that runs Mac apps, but that is only half the problem. The bigger problem is software. Mac apps are built to be run on fairly powerful computers that are capable of multitasking and which people use a mouse and keyboard to interact with. There are a few implications of this.

First, there is a good chance that existing OS X apps, designed to run on powerful hardware, would be both slow and power hungry on an iPad becuase acceptable performance and efficiency on a iMac or MacBook could be completely unacceptable on an iPad. This is on top of the inherent power-efficiency disadvantages of compatible hardware.

An even biggher problem is that the user interface would be ill-suited to the iPad. There are no apps for the Mac designed for the type of interaction the iPad supports. On the otherhand, there are hundreds of thousands of iPhone apps that will run on the iPad. They were designed for touch interaction, so their UIs are more likely to translate to the iPad, which is in many ways an iPhone with a larger screen, than UIs designed for mouse and keyboard interaction. Perhaps less obvious, but at least as important, developers of iPhone apps are likely to be futher down the learning curve for multitouch UIs than developers of “desktop” Mac applications, so they will likely be able to release versions of their apps that take advantage of the possibilies of the larger screen on the iPad than Mac developers.

Further, all of those apps were designed for a device that is even more constrained interms of power consumtion and performance than the iPad. If anything they should run better on the iPad the the iPhone.

I understand why people would like the iPad to run OS X apps. People conflate running Mac OS X applications with “openness” that we don’t get when iPhone and iPad apps all have to go through the iTunes App Store approval process. But let’s face it, an iPad than ran Mac apps would come into this world some combination of slower, more expensive, less portable (in terms of both weight and battery life) and with far fewer good quality multitouch apps.  I don’t think anyone really wants that, so rather than asking for it, lets focus narrowly on the real issue because while it may be unlikely that Apple opens the iPad to apps distributed through channels other than the App Store, at least it possible.  An iPad that ships in 60 days runs Mac apps and doesn’t suck is pretty much impossible.

Mobilizing Geekfun With WPTouch

When WordPress.com launched themes targeted at small screens like the iPhone earlier this week, I was reminded that I was going to figure out how to improve the way Geekfun and our other blogs like Pet Project look on mobile devices.   Long ago I tried an early iPhone theme for WordPress, but gave up on it, I think because it created problems with the caching solution I was trying to use at the time.

Geekfun Mobile Geekfun Mobile Article

This time out, the solution was simple.  I installed the sweet WPTouch plugin from Brave New Code.  I’m quite happy with it.  It loads quickly and it is very readable and easy to use.  It only displays for mobile users, everyone else still sees your blog’s original theme, and its easy for Mobile users to switch to your regular theme if that is what they prefer.  It is also allows for a healthy amount of customization, which I’ll have to dive into deeper before rolling it out on our other sites.

If you host your own WordPress blog, I suggest you check out WPTouch, or one of the other mobile themes that are available, like Carrington Mobile, or WordPress Mobile Pack.