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'iPhone lite' and the business of world domination

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Comment Recent iPhone rumors and tablet-Mac musings are best met with a sober analysis of money-making opportunities and technology roadmaps.

The chatter of iPhone speculation is again rising to deafening levels. AT&T is supposedly in secret talks with Apple about extending its exclusive distribution deal. Verizon is rumored to be in secret talks with Apple about providing service for an "iPhone lite" and a media tablet. There's even scuttlebutt about Microsoft holding secret talks with Verizon to develop yet another attempt at an iPhone killer.

The Reg grows weary.

As is often true when rumors run rampant, it's good to step back from what we don't know and take a look at what we do know. Such as...

The iPhone is a global phenomenon: In its recent financial report, Apple said that it had sold 3.79 million iPhones in its most recent quarter. The day before Apple's report, AT&T - the iPhone's US provider - revealed that its iPhone sales had slipped to 1.6 million in that same quarter.

Do the math - and realize that that geographic mix doesn't even include China's 1.3 billion customers. Apple has yet to scale the Great Wall. But it will.

And when we say "global," we mean GSM, not CDMA. The iPhone is a GSM device. Verizon's 3G service is CDMA. Yes, Apple certainly could create a CDMA iPhone - the antennas required are essentially identical, as are the power requirements. All that would be required is a swap-out of the baseband chip and related circuitry and firmware.

But that's not the point. Although China's mobile network includes both GSM and CDMA services, a recent report notes that CDMA "remains infinitely less popular than GSM" in China. "Infinitely" may be overstated - but not by much. According to the same report, GSM has a 95.3 per cent market share in China compared with CDMA's 4.7 per cent.

If an "iPhone lite" is in the works, China would be an ideal market for it. And let's not forget India, where GSM has a 75 per cent market share.

Other than the negotiating advantages of pitting AT&T against Verizon in the US, Apple has little impetus to develop a CDMA phone - especially one that would be attractive in the lower-price mass markets of China and India.

New technologies will change the game in 2010: As weary, Meltdown-battered 2009 limps towards halftime, we can cheer ourselves by looking forward to two technologies that will brighten 2010: Intel's Moorestown ultra-low power mobile platform, and the roll-out of the two competing 4G wireless technologies, WiMAX and LTE.

Moorestown - announced in 2007, recently demoed, and featured in many a splashy video - will bring full x86 compatibility to pocket devices.

While that capability may or may not mean much to Apple, it will enable other vendors to create powerful-but-pocketable MIDs (mobile internet devices). LG, for one, has already signed on as a Moorestown customer.

A MID that's guzzling HD video over Wi-Fi is one thing, but the same mobile device sipping highly compressed video over a 3G connection is something else entirely. A sucky something else entirely. So perhaps more important for the mobile internet experience is that 2010 will be the year when 4G wireless services become, well, serviceable.

Sprint, for example, has said that it will begin its WiMAX roll-out relatively modestly this year, but will reach over 22 million potential customers by the end of next year. Verizon recently announced that it will begin its effort to blanket the US with the rival 4G service, LTE, in 2010.

As we've noted before, although WiMAX has a heavy-hitting partner in Intel, LTE is beginning to emerge as the odds-on victor in this standards war.

At least AT&T and Verizon think so. The wireless rivals have both thrown in their lot with LTE - meaning that if and when the iPhone, Apple media tablet, or as-yet-unknown device includes 4G chippery, both AT&T and Verizon will be able to support it. Verizon's brain trust have already said that they're interested, and the company just published their LTE specs (including 8-to-12Mbps data throughput) a week and a half ago.

The bottom line: Whenever you hear rumors or speculation about an iPhone follow-on or upcoming tablet-whatever from Apple, ask yourself two questions: Will it help Apple to achieve its goal of worldwide domination? And are there unreleased technologies that might give such a device an unacceptably limited lifespan or allow a competitor to leapfrog it when those technologies are released? ®

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