We'll likely get a new iPad 3 sometime this March and an iPhone 5 later this summer or fall, but will either or both of them run on the new, ultra-fast 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks? And if they do, will LTE be built into every device, or will there be special models made for just those networks that support it?
Right now there's only one iPhone 4S and it runs on both GSM/HSPA+ and CDMA/EVDO Rev. A, on every carrier that offers it. That's a change from the iPhone 4 that debuted as GSM/AT&T only and later had a different model, with a different antenna, released for Verizon. Likewise, the iPad 2 still doesn't come in a unified model, having on version for AT&T/GSM and one for Verizon alone.
So, while Apple has moved to unify their manufacturing for iPhone 4S, they have in the past, and still to this day, made separate models of iPhone and iPad to handle different network technologies.
And they could do it again for LTE.
Previous generation LTE chipsets were deemed unusable by Apple due to their size and battery-draining power demands. Early Android LTE handsets like the HTC Thunderbolt bled power at an almost comical level. Early devices were also chunky, but soon thinned out again and grew in length and width instead of depth, like the Nokia Lumia 900, letting larger screens take advantage of that extra space.
While rumors persist of a 4-inch iPhone 5, it's hard to imagine that Apple would let the iPhone 5 casing grow very much if at all just to accommodate an LTE radio and its battery. And they wouldn't put one in the iPad 3 now if they weren't planning on putting one in the iPhone 5 later. The phone is still the flagship, for now.
Qualcomm is releasing new chips, however, and it's possible they'll have one ready in time for the iPhone 5 that's small and power efficient enough to meet even Apple's demands. Let's grant for a moment that that proves true. There's still a much bigger problem when it comes to LTE.
Verizon has a decent U.S. LTE roll out, claiming coverage in 190 markets of varying size. AT&T claims 26 markets with large scale deployment not complete until the end of 2013. Sprint will have 4 markets on LTE by mid 2011, but it will likewise take years to roll out nationally.
Internationally things get worse. Both Rogers and Bell have a handful of LTE cities each. In Europe and Asia there are a smattering of cities, but many huge markets are still years way.
LTE simply isn't very common yet, and Apple is the company that didn't even add 3G to the iPhone until the second generation version launched in 2008.
Would adding the expense -- both component and engineering -- of an LTE radio, along with any remaining size and power demands, make sense to Apple if there are so few markets able to make use of it? Apple sold the one-iPhone 4S-model-to-rule-them-all faster and further than any other handset in the history of the business, getting it into more countries, on more carriers, for more users than ever before. Would that be possible if the iPad 3 or iPhone 5 similarly included LTE all in one model?
Instead, what if Apple kept the current radio stack in place for the iPad 3 and iPhone 5 and but also launched separate models for LTE in the markets where they make sense, like the U.S., Canada, and those European and Asian countries that support it.
Not all LTE operates on the same frequencies, so engineering even an international LTE radio wouldn't be dead simple, let alone a GSM/CDMA/LTE across all bands. Letting HSPA and CDMA continue to do what they do now, in markets that don't have other options, isn't a bad idea.
But if complexity and scarcity are still the case, why worry about LTE at all in 2012? Why not just wait until 2013?
The current iPad and iPhone run at up to 14.4mbps on AT&T and GSM carriers. They run at 2-3mbps on Verizon's CDMA network. Apple went out of their way to avoid calling the HSPA+ iPhone 4S a "4G" phone last year, knowing if AT&T and others claimed it as such, Verizon's version would be made to look less-than by comparison.
That hasn't hurt Verizon's sales yet -- iPhone 4S set records on every carrier including Verizon, eclipsing devices with bigger screens and LTE radios on the same shelves -- but it likely hurts Verizon pride. With the best LTE deployment in the U.S. and a desire to use it that's so strong Verizon reportedly won't let Windows Phone and BlackBerrys on their network without LTE anymore, how happy would they be to sit on CDMA for another year, to again have to market an EVDO Rev. A iPad 3 and iPhone 5?
Apple could pull the trigger on LTE in 2012. In most markets they don't need to, but in the U.S. in general and Verizon in specific, there's reason to consider it. Doing two models -- HSPA+/CDMA for most of the world and LTE for Verizon and the other carriers that support it -- wouldn't be unprecedented for Apple, and could indeed be the best of both worlds.