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So why didn’t the first iPhone have 3G, again?

When the first iPhone came out, a lot of noise was made about the lack of 3G. Specifically, battery life was cited by lots of people as the primary reason for this apparent oversight. Headlines like "Jobs: battery life issues delaying 3G iPhone" even suggested that battery life was the canonical reason for no 3G.

This kind of headline actually made Apple look a little stupid. Other phone makers have long managed to get 3G with decent (in fact, often excellent) battery life. If Nokia could do it, why not Apple? But, in fact, the release of the 3G iPhone makes it clear: battery life, while an issue, wasn’t the only reason for the lack of 3g in the first iPhone.

In "The iPhone 3G Upgrade Question", John Gruber reveals that not much has really changed physically for the new iPhone – and 3G is still going to drain your battery:

"With
3G turned on, an iPhone 3G will have significantly shorter talk-time
battery life than an original iPhone. But an iPhone 3G with 3G turned
off is now just an iPhone with GPS. And 3G is a global preference; you
can’t set it to use 3G for data but 2G for voice… The good news,
though, is that the battery life difference between 3G and 2G isn’t
nearly as pronounced for data (5 vs. 6 hours) as for voice (5 vs. 10
hours) — presumably because with faster networking, the network is
actually used for shorter durations, whereas with voice calls 3G
doesn’t make your conversation go faster."

The new iPhone’s battery life with 3G turned on is rated at 5 hours of talk time on 3G, 10 hours using 2G. The previous version had 8 hours on 2G
– and it’s possible that most of the difference is accounted for by
better power saving routines in the 2.0 firmware. As John puts it:

"It’s entirely possible, in fact, that the battery life improvements in
the iPhone 3G are entirely software-based, and that, for example, an
original iPhone upgraded to the new OS will get about 10 hours of (2G,
of course) talk time."

It
seems unlikely, given the approach that Apple has taken with iPhone
hardware, that the chipset it’s using is anything cutting-edge (rumours that it was using the Infineon SGOLD3H, also known as the PMB8878, may be unfounded1,
given the lack of 3MP camera, but even if it is then it’s not exactly a
new chip set). So if the battery life of the new iPhone using 3G isn’t going to
match the
battery life of the old one using 2G, the key question is why didn’t Apple
choose to use 3G in the first iPhone?

I suspect that the answer is actually two-fold. First, although the
rest of the world has been mostly-3G for a while, AT&T’s US network
isn’t a pretty picture now,
and will have looked worse seven months ago. With the US being the
biggest potential market for the iPhone anyway, thanks to a combination
of factors, why released a 3G phone when most of your customers
couldn’t use it anyway? The speed of the iPhone, particularly the
rendering of Safari, made up for a lot of the lack of speed of EDGE
anyway – so, perceptually, even the EDGE iPhone feels reasonably quick.

The second reason is probably cost. The old EDGE chipset in the
iPhone will be cheaper – possibly much cheaper – than a 3G chipset
seven months ago, and thanks to the relatively-low numbers of phones
Apple ships (compared to, say Nokia) it wouldn’t get much volume
discount. With the iPhone a proven success, Apple probably has more
scope to negotiate better prices from its suppliers, making the 3G
iPhone potentially cheaper than its predecessor.

What’s interesting, looking back, is that despite the coverage at
the time, Jobs didn’t actually say what most people thought the said –
that battery life was the issue with 3G. Here’s his quote, in full:

"When we looked at 3G, the chipsets are not quite mature, in the sense
that they’re not low-enough power for what we were looking for. They
were not integrated enough, so they took up too much physical space. We
cared a lot about battery life and we cared a lot about physical size.
Down the road, I’m sure some of those tradeoffs will become more
favorable towards 3G but as of now we think we made a pretty good
doggone decision." [My italics]

What Jobs is saying here isn’t that battery life is the issue: it’s that battery life plus physical size plus 3G is an issue. The iPhone is a no-compromise piece of industrial design which involves balancing out lots of factors. The iPhone could have been 3mm thicker and accommodated 3G, but doing so would have made it less beautiful – and Steve Jobs does not tolerate products which compromise in this direction. Just as the MacBook Air has compromised performance in favour of design, so did the first iPhone.

————

1. There is another good reason to think that the iPhone 3G may not have Infineon-inside: the company announced in May
that it would take deeper-than-expected losses this quarter, thanks to
an "unnamed company" ordering less 3G chipsets than expected. It’s easy
to see how that "unnamed company" might be Apple, and "less than
expected" equal zero. The first iPhone 3G take-apart may have some
interesting surprises.

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