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What's not in the iPhone 4S ... and why

Apple plays it safe on radio tech, Paypal et al sigh with relief

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No 4G radio and no NFC payment technology: the only new radio on the iPhone 4S is a CDMA connection for travellers that, it turns out, most travellers won't be able to use.

We know Cupertino has been looking into Near Field Communications for a year or two, and presumably decided that the technology was still too immature to get the Apple glossing.

But touting the iPhone 4S as a "world phone" is about as accurate as calling a baseball match the World Series.

Apple reckons the iPhone 4S deserves the moniker 'cos it has a CDMA radio as well as supporting GSM, but it turns out that a 4S will roam only from CDMA onto GSM, not the other way round. So if you're a European hoping your 4S will work across the USA you'll be disappointed.

CDMA compatibility needs a secure element as well as a radio - a role fulfilled by the SIM on GSM networks. That can only come from a CDMA operator, so (as the small print reveals) an iPhone 4S can only work on CDMA networks if it was supplied by such a CDMA operator.

Even if you're an American traveller who bought your phone from Sprint or Verizon (the predominant CDMA operators) you'll be lucky to get a signal when abroad. The CDMA radio in the 4S doesn't support the 450MHz band so popular around the Scandinavian countries and across Russia; it's limited to 800 and 1900MHz, so the majority of CDMA networks will be closed to you even if they had roaming agreements in place.

Which they won't. Few roaming agreements exist between networks running different technologies for obvious reasons. Qualcomm has paved the way a little with its Gobi chip, which is already connecting a limited number of dongles and laptops to both technologies (we can even speculate that there's a Gobi somewhere in the iPhone 4S, but we'll have to wait and see on that one), but we're a long way from having one phone working around the world.

Apple's reluctance to use 4G (LTE) tech is understandable: the networks are only just rolling out and the original iPhone sold OK despite being a 2G-only device. But back in 2007 buyers were only locking themselves to an operator for a year. These days it's more likely to be 24 months, by which time LTE will be much more widely available and the 4S distinctly dated.

That 24-month lock-in will also be good news for Paypal, knowing that all those iPhone-toting trendsetters will be cut out of NFC payments for the foreseeable future. PayPal's competing system for proximity payments, based on barcodes and cameras, is resolutely iPhone compatible. The lack of NFC on the new handset ensures there'll be punters who can't sign up with Mastercard/Visa Paypass/Paywave for another two years at least - as users play out the contracts they had to sign to get their hot little palms wrapped round the latest Apple goodness.

Not only is this a win for PayPal, it's also going to delight the rest of the competition. Users of Android or similar will be able to drive iPhone users up the wall by paying for things with a tap against the existing terminals (in Europe at least), while iPhone users are reduced to demonstrating their superiority by talking to themselves their phones.

Apple has always made up for technical caution with overwhelming style and awesome* design, but the 4S takes its design from its predecessor and the technology it's using is going to date quickly. Apple's decisions are good news for the faster-moving competitors, but success will be dependent on operators not pushing LTE too hard and the proximity-payment crowd staying quiet for a while, neither of which seems terribly likely. ®

* That's "awesome" as in "inspiring awe", not the devalued definition which seems so popular these days.

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