This is not a post about Apple's iPhone (except that it is). It's more specifically about T-Mobile's new WiFi phones, which some marketing genius there decided to launch two days before the iPhone hits the shelves. Chalk it up to an attempt to steal some thunder from Apple by being first to launch a phone in the U.S. with WiFi capabilities.
T-Mobile is offering two different WiFi phones, a Samsung t409 and a Nokia 6086, along with a free WiFi router, which they are calling HotSpot @Home. (Another brilliant marketing move—the @Home moniker calls up memories of one of the biggest Internet failures of the 1990s). These phones are completely unremarkable, other than the fact that they purport to be able to switch seamlessly from the cell phone network to a WiFi network in mid-call, letting you take advantage of whichever network is strongest.
It sounds great, but here's the problem with WiFi phones. Connecting to a WiFi network is not always so easy to do, especially with a phone. Especially with T-Mobile's phones. At least that was my experience. (Others, like Om, had no such problems. But then, he's a telecom geek). T-Mobile sent me one of their WiFi phones and an @Home router to check out a couple weeks ago. I took them home. The phone was unable to connect to my existing, open WiFi network at home. But I had been warned that might happen, which is why T-Mobile provides its own router loaded with software to help make the connection happen.
So I plugged in T-Mobile's @Home router, searched for the network on the phone, and placed a WiFi call to my wife. It sounded pretty clear. I thought I was in business. That was the last WiFi call I was able to make with that phone. Maybe it was my Internet connection. My Verizon DSL had been spotty lately. No problem, these T-Mobile WiFi phones are supposed to be programmed to identify and log onto any T-Mobile hotspot, such as those at any Starbucks. There's a Starbucks near my office. I went inside. The phone found the network, but was unable to connect. I got an error message.
When a couple executives from T-Mobile paid me a visit, I told them my experience. They were genuinely surprised. I had brought the WiFi router to my office and was able to surf the Web wirelessly with my laptop, but I kept getting an error message on the phone. So did the T-Mobile executives using several different WiFi phones they had brought. Maybe it was the corporate firewall.
I suggested we go to another Starbucks. Same problem. We tried a second Starbucks (my third), and a third—all in midtown Manhattan a couple weeks before the launch of this service. No dice.
For all I know, these problems may have been fixed by now. (I gave back the phone and the router before leaving the last Starbucks). My point here is not to berate T-Mobile. The promise of WiFi phones are great—bypass the slow cell phone networks when you are near a WiFi hotspot. But the realities of wireless computer networking—with closed networks, firewalls, and other incompatibilities—make them hard enough to log onto with a laptop, never mind a phone.
Here's where the iPhone comes in. Many of its coolest features—such as Web browsing, streaming videos from YouTube, displaying Google Maps—are best done or sometimes only available through a faster WiFi connection. The first iPhone reviews give it high marks for its ability to join WiFi networks with ease, as you would expect to be the case from Apple. But the vagaries of WiFi networks ensure that such connections will be sporadic and unreliable, crippling some of the iPhone's most important features when you may need them most. (The alternative—surfing the Web on AT&T's slow-as-molasses cellular network—will seem counterproductive to many people). It's a problem that all WiFi phones will have for the foreseeable future.
Disributed networks such as WiFi tend to have many points of failure, even if no single one is catastrophic. With laptops, if worse comes to worse, you can always wait till you get back home or to the office. With cell phones, however, you only really need them when you are out and about. So any single failure to connect is by definition catastrophic.