AT&T has come under an extraordinary amount of pressure from its subscribers and the media over its allegedly poor network performance, mainly due to all those millions of iPhones. But apparently Apple has tweaked the phone to help.
The information comes once again from the possibly deliberately leaky Apple news-pal, the Wall Street Journal. This time there's no doubting it though, as the person in question is AT&T's CTO John Donovan, revealing how AT&T tech experts spent time at Apple HQ delivering Apple's hardware and software folks a "crash course" in proper wireless networking techniques. This makes sense: Unlike most of its smartphone competitors, Apple has never built a phone before, and all its expertise is new and based mostly on its plans and understanding of the business—AT&T is, obviously, an expert on the network side of things.
AT&T's folks collaborated with Apple to actually tweak the settings of the iPhone (its not known whether this was hardware or software based, but it may have been both—with an eye on the future iPhone designs) so that they present less of a strain on AT&T's grid. This involved changes like addressing exactly how the phones "communicate with AT&T's towers" and adjusting how the iPhone controls itself when pinging the cellular grid to find the nearest tower or whether or not a new SMS has arrived for a user. These background tasks go on pretty much all the time (and are betrayed if you hold your phone near a speaker—that "zz zzz zzzz" is the cell phone pinging the grid) and they can represent a significant data management burden in areas where thousands of users are near a small group of towers, such as in Manhattan or San Francisco, both of which are known iPhone "blackspots."
It's an interesting scene to picture—techies with two different but aligned sets of expert knowledge working together to improve their globally successful device (and with Verizon rumored to be nipping at AT&T's heels.) But did AT&T just tweak things for their own benefit? Will their tweaks actually have degraded iPhone performance in the other GSM networks around the World? Odds are, changes are universally beneficial (why swap one set of problems for another?), but since this sort of tech is hugely complex, I wonder if Apple remembered that the iPhone isn't a U.S. device and that well over 50% of iPhones are now overseas.
AT&T and Apple (and hopefully other network providers around the globe) will have to do a lot more tweaking for the next-gen iPhone due in mid-2010, and the one arriving next year, because everybody's getting hooked on the mobile Internet, stressing 3G networks even more in coming years—and probably 4G ones, too. But the biggest burden is likely to come from video, as a new survey by Coda Research Consultancy is showing: According to their data, it looks like the next five years could see a 40-fold increase in mobile data, driven by increased video downloads. This is due to large touchscreen devices like the iPhone, which made viewing mobile video pleasant and easy for the first time... but it'll also be urged along by the iPad and the host of other tablet PCs arriving soon, each of which is perfect for consuming mobile video content.
To keep up with this news and more like it, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too.