With the flurry of news and rumors of Apple’s upcoming product releases I wanted to take some time and reflect on what I consider to be the iPhone’s greatest weakness- it’s reliance on cellular providers. The iPhone is a marvel of engineering and aesthetics, a groundbreaking device that rapidly became an irreplaceable tool in my daily and professional life. No device is perfect; I’ve had the rare app crash and have needed to reboot my various iPhones from time to time, but as a whole they have been rock solid and have provided more benefit that I had anticipated with each model. The one facet that sours the experience is my cell provider. From poor signal quality to throttled network speeds, the product I get from my provider fairly consistently leaves much to be desired (and their service has been documented as dramatically worse in larger cities than my hometown). Couple this with the typically poor customer service and expensive coverage prices, and the iPhone’s Achilles Heel becomes all too apparent.
Sadly, there’s naught to be done about it, is there? There is scant difference between data plan prices, and I don’t use enough talk minutes for the regular cell plan to be a factor. To date my strategy has been to select the provider with the best coverage map and make the best of it, being extra thankful that the majority of my day is spent within the warm embrace of a wifi signal.
A recent article posted by AllThingsD on startup company FreedomPop offers a very appealing alternative. The company is taking preorders now for a device that will provide wireless data capabilities to any third generation (or later) iPod Touch. This data connection would allow the iPod Touch phone-like ability via voice-over-internet services such as Skype; in effect making your Touch a cell carrier-free iPhone.
The accessory looks like a hard case for the iPod, clipping to the back of the device without blocking any ports, and relies on the Touch’s internal battery for power. FreedomPop provides its data service via Clearwire‘s WiMax network- somewhat of a hindrance for those that don’t have the service in their hometown or those that travel extensively. Not only does the device connect your iPod Touch, it acts as a wifi hotspot for other devices as well.
The most intriguing facet of FreedomPop’s offering is the cost- the first 500 MB of data every month is free. An additional 10MB of monthly data can be procured for each friend you refer to FreedomPop’s service; the less outgoing subscribers can purchase data a la carte for $10 per gigabyte.
FreedomPop originally created their device to provide 4G service to existing iPhones, but quickly expanded their product line to include the iPod Touch model to accommodate customer interest. Their business model is still developing, with hints of Facebook partnerships and other initiatives to generate enough profit to keep their free bandwidth flowing.
The concept is an exciting one, and hopefully puts the cellular providers on notice. With the advent of digital cells, all transmission to and from the device is merely data: voice, texts, email, browsing, what have you; all are parsed into the same data. Providers need to update their pricing and billing models to reflect this, instead of gouging uneducated customers by charging for different silos of service.