Electronic Design

Is It Worth Waiting For The Next Generation iPhone?

The media is simply overflowing with articles on Apple’s iPhone 2.0 which came out June 9. I have already had the feeling that I was the only writer/editor/blogger/pundit who had NOT written about this device. So, here is my two cents worth. But to liven this up, I will tell you what I think will be the new and better features of the third version of the iPhone, not the newest one, but the (hypothetical) one just beyond.

Hard to Beat
The original iPhone was a real winner. A killer product if there ever was one. The hype was incredible and early subscribers were infatuated with it. I even selected the iPhone as the best wireless product for in last year’s “Best” issue (read the story). I not only believed the hype, I got me an iPhone. I have used it for almost a year now and it certainly lives up to its hype. You can’t say that about many products. I love the phone and use it for personal calls, messaging and email. My 8 GB of memory inside is nowhere near full, but I lack the time to load all the songs I want. At least I have ABBA (yes, ABBA), the Bee Gees, the Eagles, Eurythmics, and Roy Orbison for now. I have used the weather application regularly and even the maps feature has come in handy. The original iPhone does not have GPS but the maps feature is just about as good. And the iPhone being GSM/GPRS/EDGE works just fine in Europe. I have used the e-mail capability more than I thought I would, more than messaging. And, oh yes, I have actually used the iPhone 2.0 megapixel camera more than my digital camera. The iPhone is also great at finding and connecting to nearby Wi-Fi hotspots. But I have not used this feature except for a few times to test out my ability to connect to the Internet.

The only downsides to the original iPhone I have noticed are the slow email downloads and some touch screen features. I can easily connect, but the Safari browser leaves much to be desired. Despite its impressive 3.5-in. 480 x 320 pixel size, the screen is still too small for me despite the iPhone’s ability to zoom into the page for easier reading.

I do like the touch screen and it works great. What is difficult for me, though, is the QWERTY keyboard for e-mail and messages. The keys are a bit too small for me and I make lots of typing errors. I find the full regular keyboards on the BlackBerry and my Samsung BlackJack II much better. I have also heard a few complaints about poor RF performance with dropped calls or no service. I have never had that problem, though. Most people push the envelope on where they expect a UHF phone to operate. Despite the fact that over 80% of all cell phone calls are inside, phones were not made for that. After all they do expect a direct line of site path to the cell tower and if they do not get it you may actually not connect. That’s just radio. It is amazing how well most cell phone signals propagate despite the basic physics of wireless. Tall buildings and hills/mountains terrorize all cell phones. I rarely rave about any electronic product but the iPhone is so outstanding, it deserves it.

The Latest Version
The iPhone 2.0 released on June 9th was a super upgrade. Its main claim to fame is that it employs a 3G air interface, specifically the 3GPP’s WCDMA, along with HSDPA upgrade. Downloads can be as fast as 7.2 Mb/s under the right conditions, but most can expect practical speeds of 400 kb/s to 1.8 Mb/s, many times faster than the older EDGE downloads. This feature alone greatly improves the email function and at long last makes Internet access practical.

Another major feature is a built-in GPS receiver. Now you can do real nav functions just as if you had a separate PND like those from Garmin or TomTom. The latest iPhone continues to include the original Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR so you can connect to a wireless headset. The Wi-Fi continues to be 802.11b/g compliant, but AT&T has pulled its original offer to provide free access to AT&T’s vast hotspot network worldwide to iPhone buyers. The camera is the same excellent 2.0 megapixel device.

As for the iPod, it continues as good as ever with both 8-GB and 16-GB versions. And the iPhone 2.0 does video. It supports the H.264 compression standard and works with a resolution up to 640 x 480 at frame rates to 30 fps. So where video is available on the network, you can probably watch it.

Other new features are Apple’s new Apps Store which lets you buy and download applications for games, business, personal productivity, and a slew of other stuff to chew up your memory. Lots of third-party vendors are building products for the iPhone—this just may be the one best thing about the new iPhone. Lots and lots of apps. Recent reports from Apple say that there are over 900 application programs now available with about 20% of those free. With over 25 million downloads so far, this looks like a real winner. Finally, Apple’s MobileMe option lets you sync your iPhone with your PC and other applications like Outlook. The really good news is the price. The price of the original iPhone was predatory but probably necessary to bring it to market. The high-end 8 GB iPhone went for $499 originally, but was eventually reduced to $399. The new 2.0 model is only $199. A great price for such a handful.

What’s Next For iPhone?
When you have a phone this good, how do you top it? What more can you add to an already loaded high-end smart phone? What features will make it better or more desirable? I brainstormed this concept and here the possibilities I came up with. Included is my take on what I think Apple will add to the next version.

4G – The next 4G cell phone technology is called Long Term Evolution (LTE). The 3GPP standards organization hasn’t finished the standard yet, but it is near completion and there are many of test equipment and infrastructure vendors working on new hardware and software to support it already. No doubt handsets and carrier service is still years away, no earlier than 2010 probably. So no 4G iPhone yet.

A cdma2000 version? Not likely in my opinion. The world will be going to LTE for 4G anyway, so it seems like a real diversion to add cdma2000 and all the related technologies that Verizon, Sprint Nextel and Alltel support.

802.11n – This is the latest generation of Wi-Fi. It can deliver over 100 Mb/s over the typical 300 foot range. But it does require the use of MIMO. That means at least two antennas—not likely in a handset—although someone will figure out how to do this. 802.11g gives up to 54 Mb/s now so who needs to be faster than that anyway? So, no 802.11n.

Bluetooth – Most handsets use Bluetooth for strictly the wireless headset. But the new low power version could find its way into the iPhone. A potential upgrade.

Near Field Communications – NFC is that slow-speed data technology that lets your cell phone act like a credit card with a chip in it. It works like RFID and is designed to replace your credit card by just touching a reader or display that can download stuff. It will be used to pay for tickets, parking, trains, and other services. This is a popular feature that will eventually be widely adopted as soon as the infrastructure is in place to make it useful. A definite possibility.

VoWLAN – Voice over IP (VoIP) is still growing in popularity not only in wired systems but also in WLANs. You can already buy a dual-mode phone that switches seamlessly from cellular to VoWi-Fi as you move from outdoors into the office or home where an 802.11 access point takes over, or vice versa. A possibility, but not likely in my opinion.

WiMAX – The high-speed wireless broadband technology is certainly ready for prime time but like all other wireless services it is just taking time to sort out the products, services, and business models. Some say it is DOA while others say it will find its profitable niche. I am in that later group. It is expected that WiMAX will show up on laptops first. Some even say there will be WiMAX handsets. Maybe. Remember, WiMAX uses OFDMA like LTE so the two technologies will compete to some extent. Most cellular carriers have already committed to LTE, even those who now offer the cdma2000 versions of spread spectrum. WiMAX in an iPhone? I doubt it at least not for the 3.0 version.

Cell phone TV – I am talking here about over the air broadcast TV and not TV delivered over the network. The DVB-H version is popular in Europe and some phones already do incorporate it. In the US, Qualcomm’s MediaFLO has been adopted as the mobile broadcast TV standard. Stations are being built and services sorted out. A number of IC vendors already offer suitable single-chip TV receivers for cell phones using the Media FLO standard based on OFDM. A lower resolution version of the U.S.’s HDTV standard called ATSC is now being developed and could appear in cell phones as early as next year. This will let cell phones receive regular U.S. digital TV from existing TV stations . . . FREE. If that happens, the MediaFLO broadcasts will have major competition; they may die before getting off to a good start if the subscription price is too high or if the content is marginal. I say the next iPhone will have a broadcast TV receiver.

FM radio – Lots of cell phones have an FM radio inside. This is cheap and easy to do but I doubt Apple will do it. Too much free competition to the iPod and iTunes. It won’t happen.

What did I forget? Not much. Unless something really new and off the wall comes along, the next iPhone will have one or more of the above. Apple still has to balance hardware and power consumption so it is a real juggling act to get much more into the handset and still maintain a reasonable battery life. More likely is that Apple will do some software upgrades and add some other features or services that will help it become more of a business/enterprise phone to compete with BlackBerry.

I have also heard that the next model of the iPhone will be a lower priced version obviously without some of the current features. I do not know which ones. That means that the upgrade for the current model won’t be along for another year or so. Figure late 2009 or early 2010 at the earliest.

Predictions are that Apple will sell 30 to 45 million new iPhones in the coming 12 months. I believe those predictions. But just remember that while 30 to 45 million is a big and impressive number, it is still small in terms of annual worldwide handset sales. Handset sales exceeded 1 billion units for the first time last year and predictions are for about 1.3 billion this year. Not bad at all. Getting a 10% market share is great. Apple’s share might be more like 3% to 4 %. It is still a great start. And sales will certainly surge if Europeans start buying or China picks it up.

Had a different experience with the new or old iPhone? Feel free to leave a comment or ping me at [email protected].

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