No 3G, No Keyboard, No iPhone — Thank You Very Much

When I first heard about the iPhone I thought maybe, just maybe, I’d get one. Then it came out that there would be no 3G / broadband access built into it. Today, I’m looking at the rave reviews for the device and find myself astounded that it’s not getting a big fat “don’t buy” if only because of the lack of broadband.

Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal gives it an impressive review. He’s even got me thinking that the lack of a proper keyboard — something I find essential these days — might not be so bad:

The iPhone’s most controversial feature, the omission of a physical keyboard in favor of a virtual keyboard on the screen, turned out in our tests to be a nonissue, despite our deep initial skepticism. After five days of use, Walt — who did most of the testing for this review — was able to type on it as quickly and accurately as he could on the Palm Treo he has used for years. This was partly because of smart software that corrects typing errors on the fly.

Hmm. Maybe, just maybe. The review is pretty specific that long-time Treo-user Walt is happy with the virtual alternative (and this video of the keyboard in action is pretty impressive). Of course, I’ve also seen how not having things like an actual keypad alone on my Windows Mobile smartphone can be an issue. I still kind of want that keypad.

But come on — this is a smartphone. This is a phone that is largely designed to access the web but gives it to you at dial-up speeds. Despite this, the verdict is “The iPhone is, on balance, a beautiful and breakthrough handheld computer.”

Please. Consider how the phone is somewhat excused from offering high-speed broadband:

In addition, even when you have great AT&T coverage, the iPhone can’t run on AT&T’s fastest cellular data network. Instead, it uses a pokey network called EDGE, which is far slower than the fastest networks from Verizon or Sprint that power many other smart phones. And the initial iPhone model cannot be upgraded to use the faster networks.

The iPhone compensates by being one of the few smart phones that can also use Wi-Fi wireless networks. When you have access to Wi-Fi, the iPhone flies on the Web. Not only that, but the iPhone automatically switches from EDGE to known Wi-Fi networks when it finds them, and pops up a list of new Wi-Fi networks it encounters as you move. Walt was able to log onto paid Wi-Fi networks at Starbucks and airports, and even used a free Wi-Fi network at Fenway Park in Boston to email pictures taken during a Red Sox game.

But this Wi-Fi capability doesn’t fully make up for the lack of a fast cellular data capability, because it is impractical to keep joining and dropping short-range Wi-Fi networks while taking a long walk, or riding in a cab through a city.

Wi-Fi is not — repeat NOT — an alternative for offering cellular-based broadband. I speak from experience in having used a Windows Mobile smartphone with broadband through Verizon for over a year in the US and another one using T-Mobile here in the UK.

As Scott Karp notes, it rocks. In the US, I have a full broadband signal virtually everywhere I normally go. I have not had to pay for hotel or hotspot access fees for ages. With the iPhone, I would have. I’d need to have a plan with a hotspot provider to cover for the iPhone lamely not giving me 3G coverage in the first place. Then I’d have to hope that hotspot provider was available in the various locations I was at.

No 3G, no iPhone for me. Instead, anyone using AT&T should seriously look at the (formerly Cingular) AT&T 8525. This is a Windows Mobile phone that gives you broadband, pull-out keyboard, great screen, ability to play music and more. It’s also the first Windows Mobile device that finally works well on a consistent basis. I use an identical version in the UK known as the T-Mobile MDA Vario II. It’s far faster and more responsible than my similar Verizon XV700, generally not having the delayed answering response that I mock here.

It needs to improve more, but I know next versions will. They’ll also get slimmer (sadly, T-Mobile doesn’t yet offer a candybar-style, 3G-capable Windows Mobile smartphone with pullout keyboard like the SPV E650, which is perfect for me other than still wanting to magically get a larger screen and for it to be a touchscreen).

But while it needs to improve, it’s far beyond the iPhone in being a device that gives you the web at high-speed in your hand or on your laptop, if you hook it up as a modem. Sorry, Apple fanboys. I’m still looking for that killer product to convert me.