I use my MiFi1 every day on my Metro-North train commute. It’s a semi-hostile environment for cellular signals: there’s a rock cliff adjacent to the railway for many portions of the trip, and the last 10 minutes are spent in a tunnel.2 But many parts of the trip are above ground with no obvious obstructions, so data service should be fine.
It’s not. Not even close. It’s spotty at best: sometimes I get full EVDO signal strength, and sometimes I get no reception at all. The MiFi switches between EVDO and the old 1X network constantly. More often than not, in this corridor, I’m on the 1X network.
When traveling, I find EVDO coverage to be good, but not great. I still fall back to 1X in less-populated areas. EVDO definitely has not been universally deployed on Verizon.
To the best of my knowledge, Verizon doesn’t make any phones that can’t use 1X, even though EVDO has been widely deployed since 2005. Everything needs to be able to fall back to 1X because it’s still not universal.3
To expect Apple to wait until LTE to make a Verizon-compatible iPhone, therefore, seems unlikely. LTE hasn’t been deployed anywhere yet, but the current promise is that it’s going to start being available late this year. Based on the deployment of EVDO, when might it be practical to own an LTE-only phone? 2016?
Even an optimistic and probably unrealistic estimate of 2013 is far too long of a wait. Apple’s quickly losing ground to Android today for only one reason: the majority of mobile-phone owners in the U.S. (the majority of people in the U.S.) choose their network first and their phone second. The phone selection is nearly an afterthought. They go to the nearest red phone store when their two-year contracts expire and pick out their next phone from whatever they see in the store.
Half of those people are going to stores that don’t sell the iPhone. And when they get there, they’re barraged with giant Droid banners depicting big globes of iPhone-like “app” icons and an ad campaign stating that Droid phones do everything that iPhones do. Store employees are rewarded with contests and bonuses for selling as many Droids as possible, and Verizon is pushing them strongly with two-for-$99 sales.
Verizon has reached a powerful point in their marketing: for Verizon customers curious about the iPhone, Droid is close enough. Close enough is powerful, and Apple is rapidly losing ground to it4.
Droid isn’t actually “close enough” to the iPhone in most important ways, but in marketing and customer perception, it doesn’t matter. Apple can’t win this fight on quality and overall experience because most of these customers have never owned iPhones. They don’t know what they’re missing. They just know what the Verizon marketing told them: Droid phones are pretty much like the iPhone. When they encounter all of Android’s rough edges, they assume that all smartphones are like that, and grow to generally dislike using them. (Much like the computer market.)
Apple only has two options: either give up the mass market in the U.S. and accept slow growth in U.S. sales while Android undermines the iPhone’s base, or launch a CDMA 1X+EVDO Verizon iPhone very soon.
How soon is difficult to say: the sooner, the better. Technology is almost certainly not the limiting factor here — I imagine a CDMA iPhone 4 is ready to go, or close to it, today — so it’s a matter of other influences, such as product timing with the GSM iPhones, supply chain delays, or contractual issues with the carriers.
Every month without a Verizon iPhone costs Apple dearly in marketshare and mindshare. The longer they wait, the lower their chances to reclaim the difference.
I’m guessing a CDMA Verizon iPhone will be available within 6 months.
If it isn’t, I might need to start learning Java.
I wasn’t using it during the keynote. It stayed on the fake desk in my hotel room all week so I wouldn’t need to buy the hotel Wi-Fi. ↩︎
Verizon is the only carrier that provides any cellular service in this tunnel, and they only started doing so in the spring of 2009. But service ends as soon as the train reaches Grand Central, at which point I can get strong AT&T 3G service. So when I’m waiting for the train to depart in the evenings, there’s no Verizon service. I can’t win with any single carrier. ↩︎
Preliminary research seems to indicate that EVDO really is data-only and voice calls are placed on 1X. Still, even this data-only MiFi can’t afford to be EVDO-only. ↩︎
To be clear, Apple is losing ground to “Droid”, not Android. Very few people are choosing Android as a platform first, then finding the carrier that has the best Android phones. Yes, I know you chose it because you were angry with AT&T or you dislike Apple’s policies, but you’re probably a geek like me, and most normal people have absolutely no idea what Android is and wouldn’t care if you told them. ↩︎