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iPhone users should have more than Steve Jobs' keynote address on June 9 to speculate about. It may be too soon to tell, but it looks as if wireless technology may be gearing for a standards war akin to the throw-down between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD.
There's an urgent need for fast, widespread Internet access -- gods know we need our YouTube videos as fast as we can get them. Currently, the iPhone has a data transfer speed of a mere 60 KB/s to 170 KB/s on its EDGE network and a slightly more respectable 150 KB/s to 6000 KB/s through Wi-Fi.
The fourth generation (4G) of wireless tech is expected to serve up data at a scorching 100 Mbit/s to 1 Gbit/s.
In preparation for this eventuality, a new standard is evolving. Two, actually: LTE (Long-Term Evolution) and WiMAX.
And the iPhone may help crown the winner.
LTE won't roll out until 2010, while WiMAX is already deployed in dozens of markets around the world. However, even though WiMAX-enabled computer chips will launch in June, they're made for laptops, not smartphones.
But when WiMAX does become available, it'll make its mark. According to Kari Aakre, a spokesperson with Intel, Mobile WiMAX "is designed to operate multiple times faster than today's 3G wireless networks and optimized to handle data. Mobile WiMAX technology is expected to allow users to wirelessly access a range of multimedia applications, such as live videoconferencing, recorded video, games, large data files and more--anywhere in the network coverage area."
WiMAX already sounds fabulous, but LTE has one serious advantage: according to George West, president of West Technology Research Solutions, "It's an excellent way to extend a company's current cellular infrastructure. 2.5 or 3G networks based on a protocol called HSDPA, such as AT&T, can easily be moved to an LTE network without spending a lot of money to replace the existing network."
Both standards are backed by some heavy-hitters. Right now, Sprint, Intel, Microsoft, and Google have invested in WiMAX. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile favor LTE.
Which one will Apple choose?
Even though Apple has a contract with AT&T, it doesn't necessarily mean that the iPhone will utilize LTE. Apple also uses chips made by WiMAX-backer, Intel. When the MacBook is refreshed with Intel's new Centrino 2 chipset in June, it will support WiMAX natively. Logically, the iPhone would follow--except for the potential conflict with AT&T.
Perhaps the question can be sidestepped by creating two different iPhones, one for LTE and one for WiMAX. However, except for when they were transitioning to Intel processors, Apple does not typically send their products down two different tracks.
The iPhone could theoretically support both LTE and WiMAX standards. According to Aakre, "it is certainly possible that smart phones or other mobile devices could support multiple wireless technologies down the road." For example, Intel's Centrino Atom processor for "mobile Internet devices" supports WiMAX as well as other wireless technologies like Wi-Fi.
But more likely, by the time both networks are racing for deployment, the iPhone's growing market share will make Apple, if not dominant, still an important voice in the cell phone industry.
Historically, where Apple goes, the industry follows. Apple introduced USB ports on a grand scale, and it made Wi-Fi a must-have feature. Thanks to Apple, computers were elevated from a piece of machinery into an art object; today, the beige box is a relic.
By choosing a 4G network for the iPhone, Apple could become a kingmaker in the standards battle.
We don't know whether Apple will be choose LTE or WiMAX in 2010. We only know that 4G can't come fast enough.