Tristan Louis (TNL.net)

Could Apple Solidify GSM in the US?

ThinkSecret reports that the much-rumored-about iPhone from Apple is coming and will be available exclusively through Cingular. If true, it would mean that Apple has decided to take a position on what phone stack it is willing to support and has come out on the side of GSM. And Apple GSM support could drastically alter the mobile landscape.

Understanding the mobile landscape

In a lot of ways, the mobile phone landscape in the United States could be considered a case study into how sometimes the free market fails end users. Let me explain: in the late 80s and early 90s, there were two different types of technologies available in the US for mobile phone delivery: CDMA and TDMA. However, due to vendor differences, the market fragmented even further with Sprint PCS (now Sprint Nextel) adopting a different flavor of CDMA than Verizon. Meanwhile, Nextel (now part of Sprint Nextel) adopted a proprietary technology called iDen, which was based on TDMA while T-Mobile and Cingular adopted GSM, a flavor of TDMA that has become the global standard outside of the US.

The bottom line on this whole acronym soup is that most mobile operators in the United States cannot operate on each other’s networks because they are using different technologies. This is why foreigners visiting the US generally lament about the poor quality of the mobile experience in this country and why the US is falling behind in the global mobile race. This is also why most American mobile phones don’t work abroad.

Because Cingular and T-mobile used the same GSM technology, they agreed to share their networks, allowing their customers to use both networks transparently, in a situation similar to the one one would witness outside of the US. The fact that they use GSM is also why a lot of cool phones make it to their networks before they are available to other providers. Verizon is now hedging its bets by introducing hybrid CDMA/GSM phones under the heading of Global Phone Service. To many outside the US, it looks like GSM is already the winning format in the standards war.

Enters Apple

Traditionally, Apple has been known for its exceptional industrial design (creating hardware people lust after) and marketing (also known as the reality distortion field). However, one of the other interesting features of Apple is the company’s willingness to take a standard and move forward with it. For example, by rebranding the 802.11b standard into Airport and later the 802.11g standard into Airport extreme, Apple pushed forward usage of wireless networking. Apple was also the mainstream PC first company to decide to drop disk drives being installed by default on their machines, prompting the rest of the industry to follow suit. The recent removal of modems from their new laptop lines does, in my view, harbor the death of modems being built into computers by default.

Meanwhile, the recent success of the iPod eco-system has gotten many vendors to rethink their strategy when it comes to the portable media player.Microsoft is now creating a closed system called Zune, following the Apple iPod + iTunes strategy and Sandisk and Real Networks are working on a similar walled garden approach. These trends seem to be defying common wisdom as to the progression of markets, whereas markets would generally tend towards standardization.

But what does all this have to do with mobile, you might ask?

Well, the question here is how successful Apple can be. If it creates a product that is so compelling that users will be interested in switching carrier for it, Apple may actually tip the scale on adoption of GSM in the United States. Going back to the ThinkSecret piece

insiders say Apple is internally estimating that shipments of the iPhone will top a staggering 25 million in 2007 alone

According to Gartner, roughly 700 million phones will be sold this year so it’s not improbable that Apple would try to sell 25 million, which would garner it a marketshare of 3 percent. But the overall market numbers may be misleading as many of those mobile phones are on the lower end of the price range, aiming at the developing world, a market Apple is not current going after. The numbers get more interesting when one considers single operators: for example, Cingular is the largest US operator with 56 million subscribers. If Apple were to work its magic here, Cingular could see anywhere up to a 10% growth or more in their subscriber base just on that one product. These users would move to a GSM network and away from CDMA technology.

From there, two possible scenarios could evolve: Apple could decide to license CDMA technology from Quallcom (CDMA is a proprietary technology so every vendor has to pay Quallcom for its use) or say that they are happy in the GSM-only market. If they were to do the latter, they could potentially tip the scale in a life-long fight in the US, making GSM the standard.

But why is Apple interested in mobile?

When considering rumors about an iPhone, one might wonder the interest Apple may have in that marketplace. After all, it’s not one that the company has ever entered and there doesn’t seem to be much overlap with their current existing products.

However, one has to look at the natural progression of the music business to understand why Apple would be interested in this market segment. While its current iTunes store sells roughly US$2 million a week of tracks, the ringtone market is much larger and the margins are supposedly better. So Apple is getting into the market for two possible reasons: first, it needs to protect the market it’s created with the iPod and sees mobile as the next evolution and a potential competitor to their single use device. Second, the company sees a market it wants to dominate. So that adds up to a new phone

Can Apple GSM support tip the scale?

As it stands, GSM in the US is supported by 2 of the big four operators. If Apple is successful, one could see defection from the other two. It’s not going to be an overnight kind of thing but, much like Apple has forced its competitors in the music field to reconsider their position, it could happen in the communication field. But Apple GSM support could drive to increase standardization, eventually leading all providers to adopt the same global standards.

Of course, all this is predicated on those standards still being relevant further down the line. If phones move towards more of a VoIP model, this could all be irrelevant but, for the time being, a major shift of that kind could have tremendous impact in the telecom world.