Apple is masterful at the art of surprise, so it's always perilous to predict what the company may do. But if Verizon really unveils a new Apple iPhone tomorrow, it's likely to be a refresh of the iPhone 4 rather than a brand new design. And that will make it a questionable buy for all but the most iPhone-addicted Verizon customers.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the iPhone will be "similar to the iPhone 4 but run on the carrier's CDMA technology, people familiar with the matter have said." That notion is credible, given Apple's regular annual cycle for its smart phone, with a new version every June for the last four years, and because the company would already face considerable engineering challenges in getting the beefier battery typically required by CDMA technology into the relatively small, very thin cases that are typical of the iPhone.
Assuming the Verizon iPhone is indeed an iPhone 4 for another technology, more or less, my advice will likely be to think twice before plunging into a two-year commitment for a product that, at six months old, is middle-aged as phones go.
I take that view not only because such a minimally revised phone might not address the antenna problems Consumer Reports engineers confirmed back in July, which Consumer Reports feel should be addressed by Apple with a permanent solution. (Retooling the iPhone for Verizon would be the perfect opportunity for Apple to fix the antenna without admitting there was a problem on the old model.) It's mostly because the current iPhone lacks many of the cool features other phone makers have already begun to trot out, and will intensify doing so in the months to come. And because a second, much-improved version of the Verizon iPhone may be only several months away.
If you do take the plunge with the first model, here's what you may be facing for the next two years:
No 4G. At this year's CES, it became very clear that 4G networks, which promise data connections up to 10 times faster than 3G and dramatically smoother video streams, represent the future of mobile technology. And any smart phone that doesn't have this capability will get old fast.
True, Verizon's fledgling 4G LTE currently reaches only 38 markets (an estimated 100 million people), but this desirable service is expanding quickly—Verizon promises to reach 200 million people by the end of 2011). More important: You can't upgrade phones to support Verizon's LTE network.
A slowish processor. The iPhone 4's 1GHz A4 processor may have seemed fast back in July, but the new word on speed are chips that pair two 1GHz processors working in tandem. These "dual-core" processors, such as the one on the upcoming Motorola Droid Bionic (Verizon) and the Samsung Motorola Atrix (AT&T), not only help the phone operate much faster, but also allow it to run more advanced Web browsers for a desktop-like experience.
A smallish screen. The iPhone's 3.5-inch Retina display is sharpest we've seen on any phone, but it now it has serious competition from gorgeous screens that are 4 inches and wider, such as the Super AMOLED displays on Samsung's Galaxy line of smart phones. The upcoming Samsung 4G LTE I previewed at CES promises even better performance in bright sunlight.
Can Verizon handle it? AT&T has often implied that heavy data users (a.k.a., iPhone users) are at least partially to blame for the carrier's frequent network outages and slowdowns. As a precaution, AT&T blocks or curtails features other smart-phone users take for granted, such as multimedia messaging, Wi-Fi tethering, and more recently, video chats over the network.
Our latest cell-phone survey did find that satisfaction levels with Verizon smart phone owners, even those who are heavy data users, were much higher those that of iPhone owners with their service from AT&T. But it will be interesting to see what any impact several million new iPhone users will have on Verizon's highly regarded network.