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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Apple's MMS Radio Claim: Dubious At Best, Outright Lying At Worst

While there were some pretty interesting bits about the preview of the iPhone's upcoming 3.0 OS, there was one bit that really set me off. Apple claims that they can deliver MMS for 3G phones, but not first gen phones, because:

"Q: Is there a physical hardware problem on the first-gen iPhone that prevents it from doing MMS?

A: It’s a different radio, so it is a physical issue."

Which would be a pretty convenient explanation, because it would mean that Apple isn't playing the bad guy here - they just made a major design blunder in the first place by not introducing some hardware, right? So maybe they're stupid - but surely not evil.

Well, the problem with this claim is ... if it's true then how is it a jailbroken app can get MMS on a first gen? I quoteth again:

Hi everyone,

I own a 1st gen Iphone, and I have been fortunate to have swirly up and running. Currently I’m working on getting my friend’s 1st gen to work, however my method of calling up ATT and demaning to have MMS added to the account won’t work anymore.

Isn't that curious? And the mumblevine tells me that by "radio", we shouldn't necessarily think of a specific wire shoved into the case, but rather a combination of hardware and firmware, with the later almost certainly being flashable.

So Apple claims they can't get first gens to work, although jailbroken apps can. Or could. I haven't tried myself, since I don't want to jailbreak my phone, but I find the statement "however my method of calling up ATT and demaning to have MMS added to the account won’t work anymore", very curious.

Let's pose the question for a moment - why wouldn't the first gen iPhones have supported MMS in the first place?. It's a very basic feature of cell phones, extremely common - to the point where it never actually occurred to me that my phone didn't support it until I tried to get a message from The Girl one day, and ran afoul of the extremely poor

Remember that the first gen iPhone offered a $99 unlimited data plan, which was rather unique at the time. Remember that the iPhone 3G has a completely different data plan, which is more expensive to let AT&T recoup all that subsidized hardware in a matter of a couple of years.

Well, what happens when people start sending messages of their cats to each other all day long? Bandwidth costs rise, and suddenly that $99 plan doesn't look so good to AT&T. Emails, sure they can suck up bandwidth - but most people will prefer to use WiFi for those anyway. MMS is all cell, all the time.

The smoking gun here is, clearly a byproduct of AT&T design shoved onto the original iPhone to save AT&T money. It's an embarrassingly bad implementation, buggy and user unfriendly.

And Apple just told first gen users that they can suck it, they're stuck with it.

And I'm guessing the real incompatibility is contractual, not technical. I challenge anyone to offer concrete proof to the contrary.


Thomas said...

Of course it's flashable--isn't that what the Yellow Snow jailbreak is for, to unlock the radio baseband?

But to be fair, the 13-year-old troglodytes at XDA Developers have been reflashing radio firmwares for years. So clearly it must be very difficult for the original manufacturer to do.

Josh said...

Yeah, every time I think about I hear this noise of Apple running into a wall.

Can you update the firmware, Apple?


Maybe at least get AT&T to fix viewmymessage?


Good talk, Apple, good talk...

sterno said...

It's pretty obvious that this is all about bandwidth and making money. There's an ongoing trend on the iPhone of deliberately limiting certain capabilities to preserve AT&T's precious bandwidth. For example, they now have the ability to download podcasts over the network straight to the iPhone. However, there's a 10MB cap on it. Just about every podcast I listen to is bigger than 10MB which makes this feature almost worthless.

With my old windows mobile device everything that didn't work right was largely accidental mistakes. On my iPhone, everything that doesn't work right is deliberate policy choices by Apple.

Oh and on a related note, I don't buy their explanation about background apps. They were claiming that they kill standby time. Bulllllshit. There's nothing inherent in an app running in the background that would spontaneously nuke the batteries. The Apple made apps run in the background just fine.

The reason they are still avoiding background apps is that they want to keep the phone stable. Invariably if you've got more than just Apple's apps competing for resources you'll have resource contention, and then the phones will become buggy. Testing for this is borderline impossible.

Thomas said...

@Sterno: Yeah, and AT&T doesn't want to have a conversation about bandwidth. I read a quote somewhere the other day from one of their CEOs bemoaning the fact that they're becoming just another Internet pipeline--i.e. why doesn't anyone want to buy their ringtones anymore?

As long as they're concentrated on obselete revenue streams instead of building their infrastructure, there will be trouble.

That said, this is why I buy Nokia smartphones these days. Sure, it's more expensive because they don't play nice with the carriers. On the other hand, you can view that as a feature, not a bug. Nobody's stopping me from running a torrent client if I want to (and, surprisingly, sometimes it is useful).

Thomas said...

Also, on the background apps thing: It's still Darwin-based, right, with protected memory and all that good stuff? There really shouldn't be any excuse for a program crashing the whole phone.

It's certainly not a power-consumption concern, though. I'm pretty sure that firing up the radio for push notifications is a lot more costly than bringing the processor out of sleep for a cycle or two.

I actually suspect that the real reason they're not allowing background apps is because they can't figure out a way to do task management on a phone with so few hardware buttons. I think that's ridiculous, myself. But then, I'm not a sucker for UI purity.

Josh said...

My take on the background process is that it is significant work for Apple with a questionable payoff for the user.

I know that the phone's OS is pretty good at forcing apps to play nice. If your app becomes a memory hog, for instance, it will ask Mail, for example, to shut down before it forces your app to quit. I would think it could do something similar with CPU usage.

I think the UI is probably a sticking point, but also Apple does have a bit of a point that curtailing background apps does make for a more reliable ride.

And Apple has agreed to be a bit of a middle man for developers. It would get even thornier if they had to worry about complaints when one app breaks another.

So yeah, I think the OS is totally capable of it, but I don't think there's nearly enough consumer demand (or even, from what I hear, developer) to justify their pain on it.