Almost everyone seems to believe that the next iPad, rumoured to be being launched in early March, will have 4G connectivity, in the shape of LTE. When the Wall Street Journal is reporting it, that usually means it’s pretty likely.
However, I actually have my doubts. To my mind, there’s more than a few reasons why Apple is unlikely to make the leap to LTE for this iPad, and will hold off until the next one. I have no inside info, and don’t normally make predictions, but something about this rumour doesn’t quite make sense given the way that Apple tends to work.
In favour of LTE
Of course, LTE offers significantly higher speeds than 3G. But the big drawback is battery life: almost everyone who has an LTE phone ends up charging it multiple times a day.
However, the iPad is not a phone. Not only does it have a bigger battery, but its use of data over mobile networks is different. Most iPads spend much of their time tethered to WiFi networks, rather than being used when out and about on mobile. With smart software, you could probably build an LTE-equipped tablet of iPad size without getting hit hard on battery life.
Implementing LTE now would, though, would be something of a departure for Apple, for several reasons. First is that LTE chipsets remain expensive compared to those for 3G. Although Apple doesn’t scrimp on the quality of its components, they don’t waste money. Given that its price points tend to be fixed, it builds to a strict budget which forces designers and engineers to balance technology with cost.
Second, though, is the spread of LTE. At present, there are 31 countries with LTE deployed. In many of these countries, that deployment is either experimental or extremely limited, which means it’s only available in large, major cities.
Compare that with GSM. Apple currently ships the GSM iPhone in more than 70 countries, with more in the pipeline.
Of course, Apple could simply ship an LTE iPad which then stepped down to 3G when LTE wasn’t available. And, if LTE were widespread in the largest markets, Apple might do that.
But it’s not. Even within the US, LTE coverage is patchy – something that you’d probably not get if you only read journalists based in the Bay Area. Some major markets, such as the UK and France (combined population: 127 million affluent consumers) have no LTE available at all. And remember that 62% of Apple’s sales are “international” (ie not in the US) now, and the company clearly aims to grow that percentage over time. China, the biggest potential market for iPads of the lot, has no LTE.
Apple doesn’t do promises. Shipping an LTE iPad to consumers who can’t make use of that feature, on the promise that when (if) their local phone company turns on LTE they’ll get super-fast speed doesn’t sound like an Apple-ish thing to do.
The only way I’d see that happening would be if they knew that LTE was a handful of months away from widespread adoption, and that’s not happening. Otherwise, you’re giving the majority of your customers a feature that they can’t use yet, but which will magically turn on for them down the line. And when that feature does turn on, in six months or two years, it’ll be like they’ve got an upgraded iPad – something that’s bound to be a disincentive to them actually buying a new, upgraded iPad.
Of course, come 2013, when LTE is likely to be more widely available in the US and be in place across phone networks worldwide, an LTE iPad makes complete sense. And I have little doubt that the iPad 4, which will probably hit the market in the first half of next year, will have LTE: the timing will just be right.
But until then, I’d bet against LTE. While other companies would certainly rush an LTE tablet to market (and have), based on its history it’s just not the kind of move that Apple would make.