January 18, 2007

More musings on the iPhone

I still hate Apple for making Cingular their cell victi...er, partner, with the iPhone. But my annoyance is tempered by a speculation that a friend and I shared while admitting to one another our carnal lust for the device. It's certainly been bandied about that Apple recently purchased some significant data center space; it had been hypothesized that this was because Apple was about to embark on MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) exploits to support the iPhone. In other words, they would be acting as a cell carrier by leasing access time on other companies' actual radio infrastructure, if I have the terminology correct. The datacenter, in that case, would be needed to perform the back-end support for a 'virtual cell network' - billing, switching, data support services especially in the high-data iPhone.

What happened?

Hm. Well, let's look. Cingular is trumpeting that they have an exclusive lock on 'handset products' coming out of Apple, or in some cases they say 'cellular products.' I (and my more perspicacious friend Glen and the various analysts we droolingly read) decided that the latter is more likely correct. Apple was clear that essentially all of the back-end support tasks for the iPhone rollout are being handled by Cingular; they mentioned several times that Cingular made 'changes' to their infrastructure to properly handle the iPhone. Since it offers standard Cingular GSM service, all billing and base data infrastructure tasks will be handled by Cingular's existent (or upgraded) systems.

However, Apple also made a point to reference the iPhone's ability to hand off between cellular (EDGE) and WiFi seamlessly for data use. Therein, we think, lies the key.

Sooner or later, WiMax or truly pervasive WiFi will be available. Maybe even sooner. As soon as that happens, there is essentially nothing that stops Apple from producing an iPhone that only has a data-based connection - WiMax, WiFi, both - and using a VoIP client of their own on the iPhone to handle any voice communications tasks.

At that point, that massive data center expansion suddenly becomes key, as Apple would need to begin offering the standard services a cell provider offers its customers - voicemal storage, data accounts and pipe, billing services, etc. etc. But at the same time, you would now have an iPhone that had absolutely nothing to do with the existing cellular infrastructure.

No partners needed to provide infrastructure Apple didn't control. Or, perhaps, a variety of available partners who offer a single pervasive access technology (WiMax, let's say) rather than the lock-in and exclusionary cellular radio infrastructure they've been forced to tie themselves to with the Cingular deal. iPhones could theoretically hop networks as agilely as Apple could make them in order to support continuous VoIP services, without bothering the user - something Apple is famous for.

Apple is poised to potentially bypass, and (smaller chance) really, really slam the cellular industry monopoly on mobile communications.

Once you had the iPhone/Data, of course, and controlled the software back end gateway to it, as Apple would, then suddenly your additional business of content delivery becomes a very attractive add-on. If Verizon can (or thinks it can) make money by offering crappy content at $2 a song over cellular infrastructure, just imagine what Apple could do with a better front end, a proven content delivery solution, and an industry-ingrained consumer price of half that which still allows them to make some money.

More concrete predictions: We'll see an iPod with a hard drive using the iPhone form factor and interface, likely before the iPhone ships; probably in the next couple of months. It may have a larger screen for video use, allowing better storage/battery. It may, or its successors may, have WiFi capabilities which may be (less likely) hooked into the precursor of Apple's mobile content/communications back end system. It will be an iPod, not a phone, and will be emphasized as such by Apple. It won't have VoIP. It won't handle communications, because without the cellular component it won't be able to do so reliably enough to be a comms device. But the germ will be there.

By this time next year? I'm betting on a VoIP data-only iPhone. Maybe with a different name to sidestep both Cisco and Cingular.

Man, I love living in the future. I just wish it didn't make me into such a kool-aid swilling crack addict.

Posted by jbz at January 18, 2007 9:25 AM | TrackBack

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