Thursday, January 13, 2011

All You Need To Know About the Verizon iPhone

As recently as New Year's Day, I was telling people that I would believe that a Verizon iPhone was coming when an Apple exec hopped up on a stage and said it was so, no matter how feverishly insistent the rumors were.

This is because I follow the Apple enthusiast press, and when you do that, there are some rumors to which you just become deaf: the iPhone is coming to Verizon. Mac OS X is going to be unlocked to run on regular PCs. Apple is going to lower its prices (ha!). They're a big deal the first time you read them, but after awhile they just become background noise.

But! I will admit when I'm wrong, and Apple and Verizon jointly proved me wrong earlier this week when they got onstage and, in a brutally efficient twenty minutes, squashed three years of rumors: the iPhone will be available to Verizon Wireless customers starting on February 10, 2011.

About the New Phone

Here's what we know so far about the new phone.

The iPhone 4 (sorry, Verizon people; for now, if you want a low-end low-cost option like the iPhone 3GS you'll have to stick with AT&T) is coming to Verizon with the same capacities and prices as its AT&T counterpart: $199 for a 16GB phone and $299 for a 32GB phone. These prices are for the subsidized version that includes a two-year Verizon contract. An unsubsidized, contract-less version will be made available at a higher price.

The Verizon iPhone's hardware is mostly identical to the AT&T model - same processor, same screen, same OS, same apps. The only changes that have been made are Verizon-specific and are mostly technical: the phone uses chips that communicate with Verizon's CDMA wireless network instead of AT&T's GSM network, and the Verizon iPhone uses a slightly different antenna design than the AT&T model (this has nothing to do, apparently, with this past summer's "antennagate" - read more here).

The software is, likewise, mostly identical to the AT&T version. The only difference that has been publicized so far is that the iOS version running on the Verizon iPhone (4.2.5. The rest of us are currently running 4.2.1. The next update after the Verizon iPhone comes out will probably get everyone on the same version again) can serve the phone's data connection to up to five other computers and devices by becoming a wi-fi hotspot. There's nothing keeping AT&T's iPhone from doing this except for AT&T, and current scuttlebutt is that existing iPhones will have this functionality included in a future update. Whether AT&T will support it is something else again - remember, iOS supported Internet connection sharing via tethering for months before AT&T actually enabled it in the summer.

Lastly, and very conveniently, Verizon isn't going to be able to install any of its customary software on the iPhone, as it does on many of its other current phone offerings - it's possible that the company will make its proprietary apps available via the App Store, but none of it will come preloaded on your new phone when you take it out of the box. As a big fan of simplicity and consistency, I applaud this decision on Verizon's part (though it was probably less decision-on-Verizon's-part than ultimatum-from-Apple).

The cost and other particulars of Verizon's iPhone plan has not yet been announced, but expect it to be competitive with AT&T's offerings. I'm honestly hoping that competition on this front from Verizon will drive AT&T to lower some prices or offer more services, but that's probably wishful thinking on my part.

Roadblocks? You decide.

Most of the Verizon iPhone's other changes are coming not because of the phone or its software, but because of Verizon's wireless network and its capabilities.

The most important is that you can't talk on the phone and also using the cellular data connection to browse the Web. Whether this bothers you will probably depend on your usage (my reaction: people use the iPhone as a phone?!) and whether you're an existing Verizon customer (who already lives with this quirk). If you have a wi-fi connection handy, you'll be able to talk and browse to your heart's content.

Some - mostly those on AT&T's payroll - have pointed out deficiencies in Verizon's 3G network performance as compared to AT&T - the AT&T network has higher theoretical speeds, essentially. Again, whether or not this influences your buying decision will depend on location (I can't get AT&T 3G where I live, but Verizon 3G is available) and the traffic on a particular tower at a particular time. In practice I think this one's just a problem on paper for most customers, all else being equal.

Two other, smaller things: the Verizon iPhone's CDMA technology may not serve you as well if you're an international traveler, since many of the world's cell towers use the GSM protocols used in the AT&T iPhone.  Also, like the AT&T iPhone, the Verizon model can't make use of new 4G networks and their speed advantages. As with the other potential caveats, whether these issues affect you depend on (1) your usage and (2) whether you're a techie who absolutely must cut your teeth on every new technology the very second it becomes available. Expect 4G connectivity in a future model, possibly the iPhone 5.

What Does It All Mean?

In a nutshell, analysts say that the Verizon iPhone is going to mess up everything for everyone: Google is going to lose Android users who wanted an iPhone but wanted nothing to do with AT&T, and AT&T (eventually) is going to lose customers who prefer Verizon but wanted the iPhone badly enough to go to AT&T.

The clear winner, of course, is the company who doesn't care whether it sells more iPhones on Verizon or AT&T: Apple. Did... did you think I was going to say something else?

Apple is in a unique position in the smartphone industry: it's offering its smartphone on the two largest cellular networks in the United States, and it's doing so with virtually no interference from either carrier. Neither AT&T nor Verizon can install any applications on the phone by default. Apple controls all of the software updates for the devices through iTunes, and Apple doesn't share any of those lucrative App Store profits. AT&T and Verizon are, essentially, just conduits for the Apple experience - there is little else that differentiates the AT&T iPhone from the Verizon iPhone.

So, really, potential iPhone customers just have to decide whether they want to be on the AT&T network or the Verizon network. It must bother AT&T and Verizon that they can't do anything else to distinguish their respective iPhones from each other, but I don't care about that. I'm just happy to see consumers to get more choice without having to trade something else for it.