Wait For The Next iPhone: iPhone 4S

A while back, on March 23, 2010 Qualcomm announced new cellular baseband data chipsets including the MDM6600, which, “supports HSPA+ data rates of up to 14.4 Mbps and CDMA2000® 1xEV-DO Rev. A/Rev. B.” The MDM6600 is used in the recently announced CDMA iPhone 4 that works on Verizon Wireless. We know because the good folks at iFixit tore it down and took a look inside.

DigiTimes reported in late 2009 that Qualcomm was talking to Apple and I guessed that it was about Gobi. It’s taken a good long while but it’s happening. The MDM6600 theoretically lets the Verizon iPhone 4 work on both CDMA and GSM networks. Apple didn’t make it that way this time around, but the next iPhone, which I’ll call iPhone 4S will most likely be a single model that’ll work on both AT&T and Verizon. If you travel all over the world this added flexibility would be a tremendous value to you. Even if you don’t travel a lot I wouldn’t recommend getting the current Verizon iPhone 4 because it will seem old when the new one comes out in June or July, in just a few months. And there’s another reason.

I think the next iPhone will be called iPhone 4S. In iPhone 4S I explain in detail why I think so, but here’s the gist: both Verizon and AT&T are working to deploy “4G” networks based on a technology called LTE or Long Term Evolution. LTE is much faster than 3G but it isn’t available everywhere. AT&T will have some semblance of an LTE network in the US by mid-2011. Verizon has already rolled out its LTE network in several metropolitan areas. Both will need more time for it to be available nationwide, but the trick is that the iPhone 4S will be able to drop down to 3G speeds when 4G networks are not available. The price will probably be the same at US$199 for the base iPhone 4S, so you won’t be spending more than a regular iPhone 4 for added 4G capability. Of course data plans from AT&T or Verizon might be a different story. I don’t think Apple will go with iPhone 5 since the big thing with smartphones right now and for the next few years will be 4G capability. Marketing an iPhone 5 that works on 4G networks just doesn’t seem to me all that simple. On the other hand an iPhone 4S that makes use of the speedier 4G networks makes marketing a lot easier. Apple is about great design, products, and service, but it’s also a powerful marketing company and iPhone 5 just doesn’t seem to fit.

VoLTE. That’s Voice over LTE. VoLTE is how we will be communicating very soon. What is it? Everything is digital including voice and data. There doesn’t need to be separate connections but that’s how most smartphones work today: a network for voice and another network for data. Well that will soon change when both Verizon and AT&T fully deploy LTE networks. LTE networks are fast and with that you can shove both voice and data onto them. Think of VoLTE as a more specialized version of VoIP (Voice over IP). Verizon will be unveiling VoLTE at Mobile World Congress that will be held in Barcelona next week.

Theoretically, with VoLTE you’ll no longer need a plan with separate minutes and data: all you would need is a data plan. Hurray! And this will change the way carriers compete. Right now AT&T is touting that you can surf or do other stuff that requires a data connection while making a call on the GSM iPhone 4. The CDMA iPhone 4 can’t do that. If the iPhone 4S supports LTE then I think this particular advantage of GSM will be moot. You and talk and use data at the same time whether you’re on AT&T or Verizon. The winner will be determined by which carrier has the better LTE network. For now it looks like Verizon is way ahead. I don’t know whether or not AT&T is actively developing VoLTE like Verizon is but it better if it isn’t.

GSM or CDMA? It doesn’t matter thanks to the MDM6600 chip. Voice or data? That won’t matter either thanks to LTE and VoLTE in particular. The iPhone 4S will be a single model data phone that will be able to serve all carriers in the world. LTE will be initially supported by Verizon, since the company is way ahead in its LTE deployment, and later in the second half of 2011 by AT&T. Of course, I’m just wildly guessing about all of this but the possibility of a baseband-neutral data-only LTE-based iPhone 4S excites me!

Update: The very next day after I posted this article. From PCMag:

MetroPCS will deliver a Voice Over LTE-capable phone from HTC, making the unnamed cell phone the second after Verizon Wireless’s LG Revolution to be able to make phone calls over the new 4G network, Dan Warren, technology director for the GSM Association, said today.

Looks like VoLTE isn’t that far off.