Yesterday, I read with interest a Wired magazine report which stated that Apple may be in more hot soup for possibly having "misled" Australian consumers about the new iPad's compatibility with the country's 4G standards on the Telstra network.
"Apple's recent promotion of the new 'iPad with WiFi + 4G' is misleading because it represents to Australian consumers that the product can, with a SIM card, connect to a 4G mobile data network in Australia, when this is not the case," Wired quoted the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) as saying in a statement Tuesday.
The story noted that Apple insisted it had been clear about long-term evolution (LTE) availability with the device but conceded to refund iPad owners who felt misled. The report added that other countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Denmark could soon be following Australia's lead.
As an engineer who once delved into such matters a decade ago, I can tell you that the wireless world remains a complex one, especially when it comes to the standardization and harmonization of frequency spectra.
Historically speaking, the digitization of cellular technology aimed to bring standards together. In the old analog days, there were so many different systems for cellular communications that the Europeans were forced to get together in the 1980s and form what is known as Groupe Speciale Mobile to develop a specific set of standards for digital cellular communication in a bid to replace analog systems.
The group, later renamed GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) was chartered to form a set of common standards to ensure that systems would work together and this effectively gave birth to features such as international roaming and the introduction of the SIM card, which ended the subscribers' identities being tied to their phone numbers.
For the most part, this effort was effective in bringing the world closer to a set of common standards with which handset makers, operators and vendors could all strive for. But being in an imperfect world, not all things can be standardized, such as the entire operational frequency bands used by different nations around the world.
The controversy surrounding this Apple debacle centers on the fact that LTE, a next generation standard for wireless transmission, works in different frequency bands for different countries.
In the United States, this happens to be at the 700MHz and 2,100MHz range while for other European and Asian countries, such as Australia, LTE works in one or more of the following bands: 800MHz, 1,800MHz, 2,300MHz or 2,600MHz.
But conventional wisdom would suggest that this fiasco--being a straightforward case of making it clear which countries the new iPad could use LTE in--should not have happened, right?
But this was less than a straightforward case.
Indeed a check with an Apple press release, albeit in a footnote at the bottom, revealed that the new LTE speed of the new iPad only works in the U.S. LTE frequency bands.
Ditto for the official Apple specs sheet.
But hang on--try understanding these specs found on Apple's Web site:
Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) Bluetooth 4.0 technology Wi-Fi + 4G for AT&T model: 4G LTE (700, 2100 MHz) ; UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz) Wi-Fi + 4G for Verizon model: 4G LTE (700 MHz) ; CDMA EV-DO Rev. A (800, 1900 MHz); UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
Notwithstanding the fact that it's a spec sheet, man...even as a trained engineer, it took me some time to decipher all that information; imagine Joe Public!
The plain truth is that far too often, vendors, like the savvy and master marketeer that Apple is, seek to peddle their wares to unsuspecting average Joes by putting all the wonderful features about their products front and center, but relegate the finer prints of the device specifications to a not so obvious place.
To make matters worse, vendors also like to make the specs sheets so complicated that average people would not understand the terms being shown.
While the standardization and harmonization of frequency spectra may be out of Apple's control, and while it can be argued that it was just following the specs laid out for LTE in the U.S., it doesn't mean that Apple, or any other vendor for that matter, should obfuscate some very important facts in favor of better marketing.
In fact, rather than emphasizing one feature over another, Apple could have avoided this mess if only it had been totally transparent about the fact that its new iPad will not work as an LTE-enabled device elsewhere around the world outside of the US.
One other point that might muddle the already-complicated issue: Wired reported that some might consider HSPA+, a pre-technology to LTE, as 4G technology, thereby, allowing the new iPad to qualify as a 4G device. Most countries around the world do support HSPA+ frequency bands.
But, again, technology jargon and semantics merely get in the way of how devices like the iPad are being marketed. Technically, HSPA+ is an extension of 3G technology and isn't considered 4G. As such, the new iPad still can't be considered a 4G device outside of the United States.
The U.S. might be Apple's biggest market for the iPad, but the company last week also released the new iPad to 25 other countries worldwide, in addition to the dozen or so in the first wave of launches.
Surely this fact must mean Apple should have come clean from the get-go, and be totally transparent about what features will work (or not), and in which country they will work in (or not work in).
Making the necessary information accessible front and center not only would have spared the computing giant the blushes of being bombarded with worldwide negative PR flak, it would also give consumers the right to exercise caveat emptor in the fairest way possible.