My sad affair with the iPhone 3G S

Spotty 3G coverage and poor battery life take the luster off Apple's new star. But the roots of the problem are much deeper

It was love at first sight. Getting that sexy black iPhone 3G S from Apple was like hooking up with the lady of my dreams. And what a night we had. But when I woke up the next morning with the iPhone beside me, the iTunes in my head had become a symphony of shame and regret.

My wallet was $199 lighter, my feverish advances had drained her battery, and instead of the perky "3G" at the top of her lovely screen, there was the hated "E" -- for EDGE network. And then I remembered that Madame Bell would be coming after me for another 420 bucks this year for data and texts. Oy! What a hangover.

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Enough with the purple prose. But my first few days with the iPhone, coming just before Google dropped the Chrome OS bomb, made me realize how far we are from the mobile, Web-based nirvana so often promised. The technology and the infrastructure are simply not there yet. It's time to lower our expectations.

4G? Don't hold your breath
Check this out: "Although the carriers will never admit that current 3G and 2.5G data services are anything less than spectacular, they are still prepping their networks for the next generation. And wireless providers hope 4G technologies will light a fire under the moribund market for data services on cell phones." Sound familiar? It should. Those lines were written by an InfoWorld colleague in 2003.

That's right, six years ago. If I cared to, I'm sure I could find hype-filled 4G stories going back to the turn of the 21st century. So when I hear Verizon and other carriers go on about yet another superduper telephony technology, I've got to laugh.

There is one very false note in the paragraph I cited above: the bit about moribund market for data services on cell phones. These days, that market is anything but moribund. But the carriers never expected, nor prepared for, the rapid expansion in demand.

Consider my (admittedly limited) experience as an iPhone user. I live in a relatively upscale neighborhood with panoramic views of the Bay Bridge and the East Bay hills. I don't mention that to make you jealous -- the point is elevation. Talk about line of sight. And there's lot of demand for tech goodies, but 3G reception is very poor. It's better in other parts of town, like the Financial District, and equally crummy in others. Sure, some of that has to do with our hilly topography, but not all and not by a long shot.

If you look at AT&T's map of (alleged) 3G service in San Francisco, it's all blue -- the color code for "available." Well, it's not. And let me tell you, using even basic apps like Safari or e-mail are absolutely excruciating on the EDGE network. It feels just like dial-up.

It's not just San Francisco. My colleague Galen Gruman had the same experience in Manhattan recently: mostly EDGE coverage, with a few 3G spots such as in midtown -- and no coverage at all on Wall Street. I hear the same complaints from AT&T users throughout much of the West and East coasts.

AT&T, which badly underestimated the strain the iPhone would place on its network, is spending billions of dollars to upgrade its 3G capabilities. But the last I heard, it doesn't expect to finish the upgrade until 2010 or 2011. Excuse my cynicism, but if it will take that long to build out 3G, it strains credibility to believe that 4G will be here in a similar time frame -- on anyone's network.

I -- and many others -- have said that consumers would be better off if the iPhone was not held in thrall to AT&T by an exclusive agreement with Apple. I still think that's true. But simply blaming Madame Bell sidesteps the real problem: Our national infrastructure lags behind demand for high-speed services, and given the costs and the difficult economic conditions, we just have to wait until it catches up.

Which brings me to the Chrome OS. Sure, it's great to see another competitor ready to challenge Microsoft in the OS market. Given Apple's small market share, additional competition is a very good thing. There are a lot of reason, of course, to be skeptical about the prospects of the Chrome OS, but in this context, the difficulty lies in the nature of a Web-based operating system. It will be no better than the service connection to the Web delivered by the carriers, and given their crummy record, how many of us want to depend on them for our basic computing needs? Not me.

Battery technology lags as well
I've been covering this industry for a couple of decades, and I've heard hundreds of pitches from computer makers about improved battery life. On the one hand, there's a pretty big B.S. factor. But there's also some truth there.

Batteries have gotten much better. The problem, though, is the ever increasing demands made upon them by new features. Take my iPhone: That big, bright screen sucks power like a baby quaffs milk. Use a few other features, and suddenly you're running on empty. It's a serious problem for engineers, and it's only going to get worse. (There may be a software glitch hurting battery life in the iPhone as well.)

No doubt Apple has made strides in power management. But the features we pay for simply outstrip the ability to deliver a full day's usage without resorting to annoying tricks (you know what they are) to save juice. And what's true of the iPhone is true of laptops and netbooks. Battery technology, unlike CPU technology, does not dance to Moore's Law -- and it won't for some time.

When Apple or AT&T blow it, they need to hear about it from us, the customers. But we also need to realize that there is more at play here than just the bozo factor.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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