Wednesday, June 9, 2010

iPhone 4? Let's have 3G first

So yet another smartphone is about to hit the stores promising unlimited mobile connectivity.

The iPhone 4 will do many of the things that Android phones like the HTC Desire can already do - multitasking, flash photography - and Steve Jobs is even promising video calls, apparently convinced this will keep his firm ahead in its increasingly bitter smartphone battle with Google.

But remember the first 3G phones in the UK, and how video calls were supposed to be the killer app when they launched? They never took off, perhaps because the 3G networks were just not up to it back then.

The iPhone may deliver a better experience - but only over wi-fi for now because Apple hasn't persuaded the networks to play ball. Which brings us to the real problem with all of these smartphones right now - the technology on the phones is still moving ahead faster than the networks on which they run.

I am writing this from a business park on the fringes of Oxford, a place where you might expect to have great connectivity. Yet my phone tells me that it is struggling to get any kind of signal, yet alone the 3G I need to make use of its advanced capabilities.

Now that might be due to the fact that I'm currently using an iPhone 3GS, a device which is notoriously bad at getting a phone signal - it's a nifty little computer, but surprisingly poor at making calls. That is something which Apple promises to remedy with the new antenna on the latest model.

But even my mobile broadband dongle on a different network is barely managing to get my laptop online. Across the UK, and not just in remote areas, people using all kinds of devices on all sorts of networks are still grumbling about the struggle to get connected.

Of course the problem is that 10 years after we were promised that 3G phones would let us roam the web, make video calls and play online games on the move, we have all started to use these capabilities with a vengeance. And it turns out that the networks aren't ready for all that traffic.

It did not matter when clunky old phones with poor interfaces meant the mobile web was not worth the effort, but now millions of people are trying to drive what are the mobile phone equivalents of Ferraris down traffic-choked country lanes.

What makes it even worse is that the networks still give very patchy information about their coverage. I have just checked a place near my home where I know that one network's coverage is extremely poor - and its map tells me that it's of a high quality, good enough for video calls.

I sense from the messages I get that a consumer revolt about the state of 3G is on the cards - the more we are promised in the way of futuristic services by phone manufacturers, the greater the anger from customers who pay up only to find the network cannot deliver.


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