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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, No its ...

It's week three of the iPhone era and things spotted flying through the air might be old dumb cell phones that have been supplanted by the new super phone from Apple, known to the public as the mild-mannered iPhone. Perhaps there are still a few regular-old cell phones out there, but Apple reportedly did sell over 500,000 of the devices over the first three days after its release on June 29. The question still remains, however, whether the iPhone inherits the legacy of the iPod, or of the Newton

One thing is obvious. The iPhone represents another step in the direction of device convergence. Is the iPhone a phone with WiFi Internet access or a WiFi Internet access device with a phone? Is it a PDA with a phone or a phone with a camera? From what I've observed, based on limited interaction with the iPhone, is that the most desirable way to access the Internet is via WiFi, and it is a really useful portable Internet device. So, it's not surprising that from day one, some people have been "hacking" the iPhone in attempts to make its WiFi and non-phone applications work without activation of an AT&T service plan. This has been taken on as a project by some, apparently accomplished by others, and documented elsewhere.

It's good that the iPhone is a handy WiFi device, because Cingular/AT&T wireless services has for some time been considered the generally worst cellular service available, or at least, not the best. AT&T seems to have a technology disadvantage for true wireless convergence. There are basically two kinds of cell phone technologies used in the U.S. AT&T and T-Mobile use the GSM standard which is widely employed in Europe and other areas outside the U.S. Verizon and Sprint PCS employ the CDMA standard.  Both support data networking via their cellular networks. The EDGE standard used on GSM cellular networks like AT&T supports data transfer rates up to about 250 kilobits per second. That's about 4 times slower than the CDMA EVDO standard supports on networks such as Sprint PCS or Verizon. EDGE is about 40 times slower than your average 802.11b WiFi network.

So, if you ignore the cool user interface features of the iPhone, like the automatic screen orientation and the fingertip controls and the high-quality graphics and the built-in iPod capability, do you need a phone at all? Nokia, ironically enough, doesn't think so (at least in one case.) The well-known cell phone manufacturer has produced an Internet tablet named the N800 that is a WiFi Internet access device that runs Linux as its operating system. The N800 features an 800X480 (single orientation) touch-sensitive screen with an on-screen keyboard. Unlike the iPhone, the N800 comes with two SD card slots, but with only 256 MB of storage (the iPhone features 4GB or 8GB of storage.) Unlike the iPhone, the N800 will run Flash and features a full suite of Linux-native applications.

So now the question is, if your Internet tablet that is slightly larger than your Internet phone can run a VOIP application like Skype, how soon until you don't need cellular service at all? That would depend upon how soon WiFi is as ubiquitous as cellular service. The City of San Francisco has planned a ubiquitous WiFi network, however, their public geekyness seems to butting up against their radical greenness. Cellular providers are apparently nervous about competition as seen by AT&T's reaction to a proposal that the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction (left over when TV broadcast all move to HD) carry with it an "open access" clause allowing services other than cellular to use the spectrum.

Free or even for-pay WiFi is not ubiquitous (if you don't count the open access points found in apartment complexes.)  Someday, however, there will be a Starbucks on every corner and that problem will be solved. Until then, it would be handy to have cellular data service. But, will the excellent WiFi performance of the iPhone actually cause people to talk less on their cell phones? I wonder if AT&T has an answer to that question?


Originally published, July 2007 -- Please note that information published in Benchmarks Online is likely to degrade over time, especially links to various Websites. To make sure you have the most current information on a specific topic, it may be best to search the UNT Website - . You can also search Benchmarks Online - as well as consult the UNT Helpdesk - Questions and comments should be directed to


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