Why Steve Jobs’ broken iPhone 4 demo wasn’t the bloggers’ fault, and why Apple can do better.

by Mike on July 8, 2010

My new Netgear DGND3300 Wireless N modem/router arrived today and it is replacing my perfectly usable but now outgoing DGN834PN Wireless G (MIMO) modem/router. Over the past few months I’ve noticed the stability of my wireless network getting slowly worse to the point of being unusable some evenings and weekends. I have previously blogged about the abundance of local wireless networks and I knew the time would come when I had to move onto Wireless N. I surmised that the simplest solution would be to change my router and adopt the new 802.11n, especially seeing as all the mobile devices I have (laptops, smart phones, etc) are all listed as being Wireless N enabled.

Wireless N, if you didn’t already know, is a newer version of the “802.11” wireless networking standards that supersedes the ubiquitous G (and the “B” and “A” versions before it). Wireless G, which has been around for seven years is literally everywhere. As Steve Jobs said, “Isn’t it amazing how far we’ve come?”. Indeed, back in 2002, internet without wires was akin to witchcraft. Most people hadn’t heard of WiFi and those who had, often shared their networks or, more likely, unintentionally left their networks open; a fact that was incredibly useful to me in my early contracting career whilst travelling on the road and needing an internet connection. Today as a “FON” Wifi sharing member, I still get access to free wifi hotspots in almost every residential street in the UK – but that’s a story for another article.

I get the router plugged in, configured and up and running. This particular router is a “dual band” router which basically means it can operate as two WiFi hotspots on both the older 2.4Ghz and the newer 5Ghz radio frequencies respectively. The Wireless G standard runs exclusively on 2.4Ghz, as does your microwave, cordless telephone, remote doorbell & various keyfob switches, wireless keyboards and mice and many other devices. Wireless N on the other hand can run both on 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz and it delivers theoretically 5.5 times the bandwidth of a Wireless G network and provides a stronger, more usable connection at longer distances and through more walls than Wireless G, too.

Keen to try it out I set the router to use Wireless N at 5Ghz. I’m keen to use the 5Ghz frequency since the 2.4Ghz frequency in my area is simply too crowded. Immediately the iPad in my hand picks up the network and I’m connected. And it is good. Every touch in mobile Safari brings up the next page barely a moment after I lift my finger from that gorgeous IPS capacitive screen. This is how WiFi is meant to be. I check my Macbook Pro, and that too is connected on the other side of my house at 144Mbps. That’s almost 50% faster than by the ethernet cable on my desk! However by the garden the Wireless N 5Ghz signal drops off to nothingness. Generally as radio frequencies increase, range decreases. Therefore a 5Ghz wireless LAN will not “travel” as far as a 2.4Ghz one. I set my Wireless N to 2.4Ghz and had similar problems to my previous router. That is, whilst the range is good and reaches my entire house and past my garden – there’s just too much interference.

Yes, N was a little better than G on 2.4 – but the biggest improvement in the Wireless N standard is the support of 5Ghz networks; and as I soon find out, the iPhone 4 doesn’t support 5Ghz frequencies. Yes, you heard that right – the iPhone 4 only works in 2.4Ghz N and not 5Ghz N. This is not good when you consider that 2.4Ghz only allows for 3 non-overlapping channels (5Ghz has 12 non-overlapping channels) and even those have to compete with the household appliances already mentioned.

So now instead of a Wireless G access point in the living room, for the new devices I have a Wireless N access point running at 5Ghz and a Wireless G running at 2.4Ghz.for those older devices. You know, like the iPhone 4. I’m sure there’s a perfectly valid reason why the most advanced smartphone on the planet doesn’t support 5Ghz networks (and yet the iPad does), perhaps it’s got something to do with being sold 5Ghz as an “upgrade” next year?

And this brings me finally to my point. Do you remember when Steve Jobs abruptly stopped his keynote and asked everybody to close their laptops and switch off all their “MiFi things”? It was many hundred of hotspots all causing contention with each other – and crucially – with Steve’s live on-stage demo. Almost all those hundreds of base stations in the pockets of the attendees were running on 2.4Ghz. Now, cast your mind back to Steve Job’s iPad demo earlier this January. That worked. And it worked REALLY well. Could this be because the iPad supports 5Ghz Wireless N and therefore the 2.4Ghz spam from the audience didn’t cause an issue? It think so. And if Apple doesn’t have a 5Ghz compatible iPhone next year that demo will fail again too. Unless of course Apple doesn’t frisk all the attendees to confiscate their “MiFi things”.

Wouldn’t it be nice if companies advertising “Wireless N support” actually fully supported Wireless N? The alternative should be to say, “Partially supports Wireless N”. I don’t expect this to happen with Apple. After all, they invented video calling this year – right? (Before anyone jumps in here, I have to say that FaceTime is excellent; it’s fun, useful and free!). If you have a brand new product that only partially supports a standard that’s been around for a while now, and your older products support it, that’s annoying. It’s not a deal breaker, but it detracts from the overall quality and premium feel and, even if there is a valid technical reason for the omission, it comes across as poor attention to detail, a bit like the iPhone 4’s aerial.

So what do I want to make me happy? Add 5Ghz support into the iPhone 4. That way I can use it like my iPad and laptop – connect to 5Ghz N where it is available and fall back to 2.4Ghz G otherwise. And while you’re at it, coat the stainless steel aerials in lacquer so that you cannot bridge the connections with your hand. And don’t rush the production of the devices so that the screen glue has time to dry properly and not look like Steve Job’s took an excited wee into the first batch of iPhones to roll of the Chinese factory lines.

On balance if I had to choose between better battery life or adding a second 5Ghz radio, I’d have probably made the same decision as the Apple engineers and rejected a second radio in favour of a bigger battery.

So far, I’m loving the iPhone 4. It is everything the 3Gs was, and more. Compared with HTC devices (as an almost decade-long-time user and supporter of their products I will blog about this for sure) and the Windows Mobile and Android platforms, for me the iPhone hardware and software performs better for all my usage scenarios (use cases for you UML types!). It’s an amazing device.

Tomorrow I’m off to the Apple store in Kingston to see what their “Geniuses” can do about the yellow screen on my wife’s iPhone 4.

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