June 11, 2012 at 8:35 PM ET
Apple may not have revealed its secret (and potentially non-existent) plan to take down cable companies with a totally awesome interactive TV, but at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco Monday, the tech superpower took another big swipe at the cellular carriers. In short: With iOS 6, we'll be using more carrier bandwidth than ever, but will require fewer and fewer carrier services.
What I'm talking about is a pair of features mentioned in the keynote: FaceTime over cellular connection, and the unification of your phone number with your Apple ID, so you can answer calls on iPads and Macs, rather than on your phone.
FaceTime, the high-quality it-actually-works video conferencing system for iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macs, previously ran only over Wi-Fi. But now, Apple will enable it on cellular networks, meaning via 3G or 4G networks. There weren't a whole lot of details, and there was no mention of carrier support.
At the same time, Apple is merging your phone number with your Apple ID, so an incoming call on your iPhone can be tossed gently to your Wi-Fi-enabled iPad or Mac. That's a coup. With both messages and voice calls coming in through whatever device you want them to, and in an interface defined by Apple, how soon until you completely forget who your wireless carrier is — and why you're paying them $100 or more a month?
(It's ironic that the one carrier that has actually tried the Wi-Fi calling thing, T-Mobile, is the one major carrier in the U.S., and maybe the world, without an iPhone.)
Apple's iOS 6 release will include other welcome calling features as well, including Reply with Message and Remind Me Later options for incoming calls, and a Do Not Disturb switch to allow only priority calls and messages through.
I asked Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at Current Analysis, if the new features threatened carriers, and he said they do.
Voice calling is still the carriers' "cash cow," and the piling-on of services from Apple (and Google's Android) is keeping carriers from expanding their own menus, instead having to dial back on what they offer, so they don't go broke supporting smartphones. "The first step was to eliminate unlimited data," Greengart told me. "What's next?"
When Apple introduced its iMessage system last year, it basically claimed a huge chunk of the carriers' text messaging business. Sprint and AT&T answered this by forcing new customers to buy unlimited text messaging plans, or pay a la carte for each and every one. Last I checked, Verizon still allowed you to buy buckets of text messages. I have a plan that gives me 250 for $5 a month, and it's great, because the rest of my messages are "free" iMessages between other iOS devices. I don't think the carriers could block iMessage because they had already allowed BlackBerry and Google (and, to some extent, Facebook) to get away with it.
Carriers have blocked other exciting iOS features, though. Remember back in June 2009 when Apple introduced tethering — sharing a phone's Internet access with a computer? It took a year for AT&T (then the only U.S. iPhone provider) to allow iPhones to use it, and then it was at a substantial premium. AT&T's current iPhone tethering plan is very fair, but it seems like there was a lot of kicking and screaming to get there.
We need to watch for a repeat of the tethering fiasco here. Apple can announce all kinds of revolutions but carriers don't necessarily have to comply. Apple doesn't always confer with its partners before announcing features — and Apple's phone partners now span the world, so it matters less and less what individual carriers, even ones as powerful as AT&T and Verizon, think.
But being U.S. based, we care what they think, and so I asked the three major carriers about the iOS 6 features that may encroach on their business.
Verizon declined to comment, and I'm still waiting to hear from AT&T. Both of them have tiered pricing, so if someone uses lots of gigabytes doing FaceTime video, that customer will likely pay for the privilege — if they allow the service at all.
Sprint is in a different situation, because it offers unlimited data plans, and says it has "no current plans to offer tiered data pricing for smartphones." We'll see if that's still true after the FaceTimers start videochatting to excess.
But increased data usage is the least of their troubles. If more phone carrier services become Apple services, the carrier will have less hold over its customers. Why not buy the cheapest Virgin America pre-pay plan, if you can take calls and do so many other things over Wi-Fi when at home or at work? Heck, why not just use an iPod Touch?