iPhone 4S thoughts, part 1

A preamble: Given the current uncompetitive US cellular climate and relatively atrocious level of service provided by all of the major players, a major goal of mine remains minimizing the total dollars given to my cell provider. If this is a shared goal, the optimal time for cell phone replacement, on contract, at subsidized rates, is the first moment possible.

To clarify: Apple sells unlocked iPhones for $650. AT&T sells locked iPhones for $200. That means AT&T purchases iPhones at some rate slightly lower than $650 and subsidizes some amount less than $450 to each customer to entice them into a 2-year contract with a total value somewhere north of $2,000.

This means for every iPhone sold, AT&T pays Apple up front, and earns it back over time. When the subsidy has been recovered, usually between 18 and 24 months, AT&T begins offering its customers new phones at fully subsidized rates in exchange for signing a new contract.

Because the user’s monthly bill does not decline once their subsidy is paid off, AT&T’s profit increases immediately for every customer who continues to use their old phone after it is paid off.

Thus, to avoid paying AT&T any extra money, AT&T customers should upgrade immediately upon being able to receive a full subsidy again.

Hence, 16 months after standing in line for an iPhone 4 at launch day, I have an iPhone 4S.

Letters to the FCC part 1, AT&T and T-Mobile

The purchase of T-Mobile by AT&T would be bad for consumers in the US for the following reasons.

Currently, T-Mobile is the only carrier that sells and supports unlocked phones.  This means that any GSM phone, which is most of the phones world-wide, will work on T-Mobile’s network. AT&T uses a software lock in their phones, like the iPhone, so that they can not be used on another network despite being GSM phones. This choice can be seen in only one light: an attempt to restrict consumer choice, and is an example of the kind of anti-consumer, anti-competitive behavior AT&T already exhibits, and a reason why they should not be allowed greater power in the US wireless market.

Also, T-Mobile is the only US cell provider that charges a lower fee for a contract that does not come with a phone. AT&T has incredibly high pricing (in line with Verizon, but higher than any other country in the world) which suggests collusion among the 2 largest US carriers and another reason to maintain several consumer options. In addition, AT&T’s high pricing is defended by the company as hardware subsidies for consumers, allowing them to purchase new phones at a fraction of the true cost through a subsidy repaid during the life of the contract.  However, AT&T’s contracts that do not include hardware cost, on a minute by minute and text message by text message, the same as their subsidy containing counterparts.  T-Mobile, as of this writing, offers a package for $70/month that includes a phone and the same package, sans phone, for $50/month, leaving the consumer with a clear idea of the cost of the hardware subsidy ($20/month).

The fact that AT&T offers no plan including data at under $75/month indicates that they are not only colluding with Verizon to maintain pricing but that giving AT&T more leverage by removing T-Mobile, one of their few true competitors, would be horrible for the US consumer. Note that, because the phones are not interoperable, Sprint and Verizon are not true competitors with AT&T, as the consumer must buy new hardware. In other countries around the world, where all wireless providers are based on the GSM standard, switching providers is a very low cost proposition, requiring only a new SIM card and agreement, not new hardware.  This drives prices down and improves service.  In the US the differing wireless standards act as a brake on competition, hindering subscriber movement, and ultimately leading to higher prices because companies like AT&T and Verizon do not have adequate competition.  The purchase of T-Mobile by AT&T would only worsen the situation, and I urge you, even in the event that it recieves your approval, to constrain AT&T with the following requirements.

1. All phones must be sold unlocked. With no remaining GSM competitor in the US, there is no need for AT&T to lock the phones to their wireless network.  The only reason they do this is to enable them to charge exorbitant overseas roaming fees, because the user can not simply install a local SIM card in their AT&T-provided phone.

2. AT&T must offer “bring your own phone” plans that are cheaper for daily use than the “subsidy including” plans. The fact that they do not do this now is simply disgusting, because it means they believe their customers are too stupid to notice the dishonest pricing of non-subsidy plans.

3. AT&T must remove the false charges they currently apply for incoming text messaging.  Currently AT&T charges both the sender and the reciever of a text message, a practice that has been found illegal in other countries and does not apply to any other of their services, such as phone calls or email. Text messaging has a near-zero delivery cost, and their current policies represent nothing more than rampant profiteering.

4. AT&T should institute pay-per-use options for voice minutes, rather than requiring the user to pre-pay for a block that may or may not be used and will expire if unused. This billing practice helps no one outside of AT&T, and the fact that it is the default US (but not global) standard speaks only to how poorly our wireless carriers are regulated and how poor a job competition has done to improve pricing options.

In their current position as one of the two largest US wireless carriers, AT&T has done a horrible job supporting their customers, with high pricing and mediocre service. The acquisition of T-Mobile does not indicate a change of heart on their parts, and simply improves their pricing leverage over the US consumer.  As their chief regulator, their behavior is a reflection on your willingness to defend the US consumer.  Please, do not give them the power they seek and instead fight for broader choice and lower prices, two things that US consumers are currently at the bottom of global rankings on in the wireless provider category.

Thank you.

iPhone 4 thoughts, part 2

This morning as I was using my iPhone 4 with Bumper on in a room that normally has poor signal strength I noticed the signal dropping.  I was on wifi as well, so connectivity was fine, of course, but the bars declined in the same manner as yesterday when held without Bumper on.

I shifted the Bumper and the bars returned.  This means that, in areas where signal strength was, with the iPhone 3G, questionable, the iPhone 4 antennas are more vulnerable to the bridging interference than in strong coverage areas.  This corresponds with findings posted by others.

I then removed the bumper and the problem was easily reproducible by holding the phone in my left hand in all areas of the house, regardless of coverage strength.  I’d been debating heading back to the Apple store, and this pushed me over the edge.  I got on the bus.

When I got to Stonestown Galleria, having not used the phone at all on the cold bus ride (this is San Francisco), the problem wasn’t initially apparent.  I sat in the food court for ten minutes, debating what to do and holding the phone with full 3G signal.  I’ll note for others that when I say “holding the phone” I mean lightly, not some death grip, and in a very, very standard way, not in any special fashion. My hands are not and were not wet.

After about ten minutes, while I was trying to come up with a way to explain this bug to the Apple store staff, the bars started dropping.  Note that the Galleria is much warmer than the outdoors, so I believe the antennas are more vulnerable to interference and detuning at warmer temperatures.

I went to the Apple store and demonstrated the problem to the first staffer I found.  He referred me to the Genius Bar, made me a walk-in appointment, and asked me to wait. I did, and while doing so tested the phones in the display area.  None of them dropped immediately but I did not hold any for more than a few moments, as I was trying to test them all. During this time I was not holding my iPhone 4.

When the Genius called me I explained the problem and he asked if I could show him. I pulled out the phone (sans-Bumper) and held it lightly.  The bars began to fade.  He said that this was the first time he’d seen it, and asked to try.  When either of us let go of the phone the bars come back, and when he held the phone the bars dropped.

He was impressed, and said that after hearing about the problem he’d tried to reproduce it, but hadn’t been able to on the display models.  I told him I’d tried and failed also.  He took the phone and ran tests, including restoring it from DFU mode. He also got me a new phone.

After restoring it the phone did not immediately demonstrate the problem, but once we’d held it for a few minutes the bars began to drop again, until the phone lost signal and began searching for a network.  I should note here that the Apple store has excellent AT&T coverage.

He said they’d send my old phone off to engineering, and they were excited to have one with a reproducible problem.  He and another staffer set up my new phone and activated it, and asked if I wanted to try it before leaving. I said yes, and held the phone. Having been synced with iTunes moments before it was already warm and bars began immediately dropping.  Both Apple store staff reproduced the problem with the new phone.

At this point I was very relieved to know that it wasn’t just me, or just my phone. Strange, but the fact that it’s widespread, or at least more widely spread is comforting.  The Genius who’d been helping me then said that they think it’s either a firmware or a design issue, and that there wasn’t anything else he could really do, because they had to find a solution internally, and that they were learning as they went.  He was very polite and genuinely interested in solving the problem.

I said I understood and that I’d take the new phone home, and he told me to swing back by if it became a more serious problem.  He then said the most interesting thing:

“I tried to reproduce the problem on the display units, but I definitely didn’t hold them for as long as we’ve held this one.”

“Me neither,” I said.

“Now I know how it works though,” he said, “I’m glad to see it.”

The phone is awesome, and I’m glad to have it.  The Bumper seems to make the problem almost disappear.  However, the problem is both real and reproducible, and affects more than just one unit.  If you’re not seeing this, that’s wonderful, but it’s something I’d test for if I were going to buy an iPhone 4.  It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s big enough of a problem that a) Apple should give out free Bumpers and b) you want to know if your phone does it in case there’s a widely-issued fix or recall.

The iPhone 4 conundrum

I currently have an iPhone 3G.  After two years of daily use it is definitely worse for the wear, with cracks in the plastic casing and dust stuck under the screen.  The battery is also failing, resulting in a standard 2 hours of usage.  For those curious, the cracks occur between the holes in the plastic (for volume rocker, sleep/wake button, sim tray, screws, 30-pin connector, and speakers) and the metal edge to the front of the phone.  These cracks grow over time, and multiply.

Of course I’ve dropped it.  I list these things as facts rather than as points of failure.  In the past ten years I’ve had a number of phones. Not one survived two years without showing the wear.  This is one of the reasons I take mugshots (via dailymugshot.com), to see if the wear is as visible on my body.  It must be.  The point for the phone though is that two years is a long time to commit to a single object.  It is a lot of hours of use, a lot of strange locations, a lot of potential drops and spills.  There is no other object in my life that spends so much time with me and is so delicate.  And survives.  So a two-year commitment to any single phone seems an odd decision.  But that is the current US cellular climate, and despite my vocal protests and Google’s attempt at direct sales, it will not be changing this week.

I am ready for a new phone.  I enjoy the iPhone, and am not currently enamored of any other maker’s offering, though I watch them all. I had hope for Palm, and believe Android/HTC will tempt me repeatedly, but at the current moment, they do not.  My main desires, for a faster processor, better battery life and nicer display, are all at least partially adressed by iPhone 4.

What hesitation then?  Well you see it comes to this: I live in San Francisco. I spent an hour or so at the Haight Street Fair yesterday (which may or may not be spelled with an additional ‘e’).  My iPhone 3G spent that time bleeding battery into a “No Service” search.  A futile one, because in addition to the thousands of people who would bring down AT&T’s modest network regardless of the location, there is another problem:  AT&T has no coverage on Haight Street.  This is a well-kept secret, as Haight and Ashbury are relatively high-profile streets in San Francisco, and a mainstay of the tourist circuit.

How then can AT&T simply abandon the neighborhood?  Your guess is as good as mine.  But the dead zone, as these things are called, extends some 100 yards up and down Haight on either side of Ashbury, and is reliable enough that, when riding a bus down Haight, I can count down to the moment my phone will lose coverage.  This is not the only such spot, but it is an excellent example of why AT&T customers in San Francisco are so unhappy.

“But we have the fastest 3G network,” claim the ads.  But your network doesn’t work, I say. Yes, in other cities AT&T remains relatively useful.  In San Francisco, however, it is a wish and a prayer.  In my first three hours back from New York last week I made three calls to three different people from three different locations.  They all failed.  Perhaps this is my hardware, save that the same phone had worked fine in New York scant hours before.  Perhaps it is the network.

There is one other thing.  In China, to take as an example a location whose carriers and cellular industry I am at least comfortably knowledgable about, this service would not be so maddening.  In China, at the end of the month, I recieved a bill for the number of minutes used and the amount of data transferred.  If AT&T functioned in this manner (or any US carrier, for that matter) such a dead zone would not be as frustrating, because I wouldn’t be paying for service in it.

The US wireless market remains that rare combination of uncompetitive, expensive, and mediocre.  And yet here I live, in San Francisco.  What to do, what to do?

Luckily I have another 24 hours until iPhone 4 pre-orders to make up my mind.