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The Verizon iPhone's Silent Explosion

The Verizon iPhone's Silent Explosion

AT&T haters have been waiting years for a Verizon iPhone, so where were the 'round-the-block lines on Thursday? Chalk up the relatively muted atmosphere to strong direct-ship preorders, the lack of a truly new version, and the fact that waiting in line outside in February is much different from doing so in June. Meanwhile, HP pushed webOS, Obama backed broadband and Anonymous roughed up a security firm.

By Paul Hartsock
02/12/11 5:00 AM PT

Just after the Verizon iPhone went on pre-order last week, the carrier boasted record-setting numbers of sales. Some estimates pegged the number at half a million units in only a few hours.

When the actual phones made it to stores on Thursday, though, most places didn't see the kind of blocks-long lines that form at Apple and AT&T stores each time a brand-new model rolls out. So was the launch a big downer? Why no dancing in the street? Might be because Verizon's iPhone 4 isn't exactly a new model; might also be because previous launches happened in June, and it is now February. If you don't get the point I'm trying to make, you need to go outside more.

Anyway, now AT&T refuseniks who want an iPhone can get one, and at its heart it is the same iPhone 4 the world has seen before. But there are a few minor differences.

For one thing, the metal band around the Verizon iPhone appears to be subtly different than the one around the AT&T iPhone. That band serves as the device's antenna, and it was sharply criticized when iPhone 4 was first launched. It seems the design resulted in a so-called "death grip" -- hold the phone a certain way and watch your service bars disappear. It would stand to reason that Apple may have wanted to tweak that bit of engineering for the Verizon launch, but a few reports have surfaced that the death grip is still there, and it's now been joined by the "death hug," which affects the thing's WiFi antenna. We'll see if this issue snowballs the way it did last summer.

Of course Apple also needed a different kind of cellular chip in order to work on Verizon's network, and the one it put in there is capable of running on both Verizon's CDMA system and HSPA+ networks. This means future versions of the iPhone might not need to have a bunch of different designs in order to work on different carriers.

And now that iPhone has converted to an open marriage with AT&T, the marketing tactics of other major U.S. networks had to do a quick pivot. Verizon very quickly stopped talking about banishing iPhone to the island of misfit toys. Who knows how much attention it'll pay to Android now.

Meanwhile, AT&T is doing its best to show how being able to talk on the phone and use data at the same time is a big important function -- and it's offering customers unlimited free mobile-to-mobile calling if they get unlimited texting.

Over at T-Mobile, the carrier now seems to be adopting the stance of "It's the network, stupid," which used to be Verizon's battle cry before its ads started fawning over the phone instead. It's been calling its HSPA+ a 4G network for a while now, and you can debate whether that's true all day, if you must. But it's also giving away all of its phones for free on the weekend of Feb. 12 in exchange for two-year agreements. It comes off as sort of a panicked reaction -- though I admit it might be a great deal for buyers, and it might also make enough sense for the company from a profitability standpoint to be able to chain all those customers to its network for the next 24 months.


Listen to the podcast (16:34 minutes).

Gloom for Xoom?

Back when Samsung's Galaxy Tab came out, some people called it the first real contender to Apple's iPad. Maybe so, but the Galaxy runs what is essentially a smartphone operating system. Now that Honeycomb is out of the garage, we're going to see what Android can really do with a 10-inch tablet.

It looks like Motorola may well be the first on the scene. It's already shown off Xoom, a Honeycomb-powered 10-inch tablet for the Verizon network, and that device could hit the shelves very soon. According to some as-yet unreleased Best Buy ads that Engadget dug up, we're looking at a Feb. 24 launch, though Verizon won't confirm that.

But a few other unconfirmed details apparently revealed by the Best Buy ad have given tablet fanatics a moment of pause. That little yellow price tag next to the Xoom appears to read US$799, which is right up there with the tip-top most expensive iPad on the market. Maybe that's not so bad, though -- Xoom does have some better tech specs than any iPad available right now. And even when Apple refreshes the line with iPad 2 and makes it about as powerful as Motorola's Xoom, that new iPad will likely observe the same price points we see now, meaning buyers will have two good options at similar prices. That's the way it is with high-end Android phones vs. the iPhone.

As of now, though, it's unclear when or if Motorola will do anything to address price points below 800 bucks. Apple does -- it has a WiFi-only model with less memory for right around $500, and it wouldn't be crazy to assume that'll stay the same in the iPad 2 lineup. With Xoom, though, it looks like buyers won't get any kind of price break at all if they don't need that cellular data hookup. In fact, according to that Best Buy ad, users will actually have to sign up for at least a month of data services from Verizon in order to even get the WiFi function turned on. They can drop the service immediately if they don't like it, but that's basically just another $20 to add to the sticker price.

Maybe Verizon is doing this to try to get users addicted to the joy of going online anywhere, not just in WiFi zones. But ask any decent drug pusher and they'll tell you the first hit should be free, THEN you start charging.

Like I said, Verizon has confirmed none of this, so maybe this Best Buy ad is a mistake or some kind of elaborate plant meant to test reactions to one of several possible launch scenarios. Ya never know. But if it's true, it might set Apple up for a very unusual -- and no doubt very, very smug -- remark about undercutting its competitors on price when it finally introduces iPad 2.

Wholly Held Palm

This week wasn't the first time since HP bought up Palm that the company launched a webOS product. But perhaps it was the first time it really felt like the launch of an HP webOS product, something built entirely under the new owner's umbrella, and not a matter of HP slapping together a project originally begun by an independent Palm in order to get it out the door and put it behind them.

The launch focused on three new mobile devices. First up was the world's first webOS-based tablet, the TouchPad. It's not quite ready yet -- won't be out for several months. But showing it was maybe HP's way of telling Palm fans, "Don't go out and blow your wad on a Xoom or iPad; we're working on it. Palm may be gone, but we're keeping the urn on the mantel and sprinkling a little bit of its ashes into everything we're building."

In tablets, it seems a screen of nine or 10 inches qualifies you as a full-sized tab, and TouchPad's measures out at 9.7. Storage options are 16 or 32 GB, and its Snapdragon processor runs at 1.2 GHz. It runs Flash and HTML 5, and users will be able to buy books and periodical subscriptions through the device. As for how much TouchPad will cost at launch, that isn't yet known.

On the other side of the spectrum we have the Veer, a smartphone apparently made for people with very small hands. Looking at it, you may not be able to stop yourself from assuming it's made for children, but the Veer does run full webOS and includes a slide-out keyboard under its 2.6-inch screen. HP says it's the size of a credit card, but its storage and power are also junior-sized -- 8 GB and 800 MHz, respectively.

In the middle is yet another Pre smartphone, the Pre 3. Recall that the Pre 2 was released only last October, so improvements in this third version are more like minor nudges than great leaps forward. But they are improvements -- most noticeably a half-inch more room in the screen, and a processor that's been bumped up to one and a half GHz.

HP says it won't be available until next summer, so don't fret if you just scooped up a Pre 2.

As an operating system per se, webOS has received fairly high marks from critics since day one, but in order to catch on with buyers, it's going to have to brighten up its app outlook and get developers interested in building webOS software. To that end, HP's hired Richard Kerris, formerly the head of Apple's developer relations. That could prove helpful, but he'll be working in a very crowded room, what with Apple and Android ruling the space, RIM still kicking, Microsoft winding up for a comeback with Windows Phone 7, and Nokia doing whatever it is it plans to do this week.

Back on Broadband

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama beat the broadband drum yet again, calling it one of the country's top technological priorities. If that sounded familiar, it's because this same topic has been going in and out of conversations for years -- yet Americans in low-population areas still can't get online without their computers making telephone-line modem sounds the rest of the country hasn't heard since 1998.

Obama revisited the issue yet again this week during a speech at Northern Michigan University, where he touted his Wireless Innovation and Infrastructure Initiative. The language was quite familiar -- extending wireless broadband to nearly all the nation, building a public safety broadband network, encouraging innovation, etc. It calls on the DoD, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and private television stations to give up chunks of the airwaves they have reserved for themselves in order to contribute to the amount of radio space available for the project.

That's no doubt going to run into some strong resistance among TV stations -- the NAB has already called the approach "heavy handed." It says it's not necessarily against the plan, but it wants to make sure that giving up airwave space is voluntary and that those who refuse won't be punished.

Inglorious Introduction

Every year on Super Bowl Sunday, you're no doubt going to see some very good football teams playing each other. But there are no playoffs for advertisements, so anyone who can manage to put together the cash for airtime gets to step onto the field, for better or for worse. And for every "Made in Detroit" and junior Darth Vader out there, there's a Kenyan runner fleeing a Just for Feet death squad and a sad woman reduced to being a condiment on a Burger King sandwich.

Groupon missed the pure weirdness the dot-com era brought to Super Bowl ad breaks a decade ago, so perhaps it was looking to give us some sort of blast from the past. The way it went about doing that may have succeeded in getting the attention of millions of people who'd never heard of Groupon before, but it also could have given a lot of those people the suspicion that this company just might be run by a bunch of schmucks.

Example of a Groupon Super Bowl spot: Starts out like your typical Grand Cause ad. Tibet is beautiful and rich in culture and history, but its people are suffering. And just when you expect to hear about some dot-org website dedicated to the problem, Timothy Hutton tells you about what a great deal he got at a Tibetan restaurant, thanks to Groupon. Other causes the ads played off were deforestation and saving the whales.

There are a lot of very different conclusions one might be able to draw from Groupon's campaign:

  • A) The company's top brass really does think a half-price dinner is as important as the plight of the Tibetan people. That would make them scumbags, but it would also indicate they're extremely dedicated to the art of couponery. Or possibly ...
  • B) Groupon was satirizing the profound smallness of its own venture by flippantly contrasting it with whale extinction. That would be wise, because whenever satire fails, even if it fails because it's just bad satire, all you have to do is claim it was a little too highbrow for the audience's sensibilities. Win/win. Or was it ...
  • C) The commercials were meant as a backhanded insult to Groupon's own customers, implying they're all a bunch of obsessed penny-pinchers whose chief concern is saving a few bucks on a bikini wax while the rest of the world goes to pot. That'd be kind of a crazy thing to do, but turning down a $6 billion buyout offer from Google was also kind of a crazy thing to do.

Later in the week, following much negative feedback, the company released a statement explaining that its intentions with the ads were more along the lines of option b) -- self mockery. It also claimed that the ads didn't make people take the causes they highlight less seriously, unlike certain other ads that appear to glorify antisocial behavior.

Instead, I guess it just made it appear that Groupon itself takes those causes rather lightly. And besides a trio of dumb ads, there's little to suggest that's actually true. In fact, the site has donation pages to benefit these causes, and Groupon will match the funds users give through that channel.

However, that fact wasn't well-highlighted in the ads that millions of people saw. And for a lot of them, that was the first they'd ever heard about Groupon. Maybe it was mission accomplished -- maybe it succeeded in getting people talking, and now a lot more people in the world know what Groupon is and what it does. But for a company that flaunts its dedication to local and worldwide causes the way Groupon did in that statement, it really blew that first impression.

Of Bulls and Red Flags

Last week I described Anonymous as an online community of hacktivists that didn't have much in the way of a hierarchy or an organizational backbone. It's just kind of this amorphous group made up of anyone claiming to be a member.

But that's not how Aaron Barr sees it. Barr is CEO of security firm HBGary Federal, and he says he's put together dossiers on several high-ranking members of Anonymous. In an interview with the Financial Times, he explained how he pieced the info together through various means, including social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. No actual names of Anonymous individuals came out in the interview, but several nicknames were discussed, and Barr said he planned to present his research later at a conference in San Francisco, so maybe he does intend to name real names eventually.

The goal of the exercise was apparently to prove his company's chops at finding the holes in information security, but it's hard to imagine that after all that research, Barr failed to realize Anonymous is rather easy to provoke. No major insult goes unnoticed, and sometimes even smallish ones result in online skirmishes. Counterattacks aren't just carried out via petty flamewars, either; Anonymous DDoS attacks have taken some relatively big sites temporarily off the map from time to time, and network intrusions have been known to happen as well. Talking about un-anonymizing Anonymous, and doing it in a widely read newspaper, is really gonna give the hornet's nest a serious poke.

So maybe Barr knew there was going to be some fallout. Maybe he expected his firm could handle it, and at the end of the day it would turn into a big story and gain his outfit some name recognition. But I don't know that he really expected the double-barreled retaliation his company received after that interview was published.

First, Anonymous hacked his company's network and dug up lots of private company emails, as well as the information Barr had gathered about Anonymous members in his research. Then they shut the site down and posted a scolding message along with a link to download all the internal information they had scooped up in the network raid.

The Financial Times reported that Barr didn't plan on giving his findings to the police because of the problems that could come into play if authorities prosecuted on evidence he provided. But the Anonymous statement implied that Barr actually intended to sell various piece of information to the FBI, and it further explained that's no longer an option because Anonymous has given the whole package to the authorities for free. It claims that all the info Barr managed to come up with was already publicly available on IRC networks, so no harm done to Anon in forking it all over to the feds.

So what did HBGary Federal gain by this maneuver? I'm not a branch of the federal government, so I'm personally not the kind of customer the company's probably trying to attract in the first place. Perhaps my point of view on this isn't quite relevant. But from where I'm sitting, the headlines were less "Brave Security Guy Takes On Anonymous" and more like "So-Called Security Expert Gets Himself All Hacked Up."


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