Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Apple's new iPad 2, FaceTime, WiFi, 3G, Verizon, AT&T, man, this is getting really complicated, isn't it?

There is generally an assumption among tech writers, and us media writers, as well, that our readers are pretty tech savvy. Our readers know the difference between 3G and WiFi, Android and webOS, RAM and sheep.

But there is still a huge portion of the population that is nowhere as tech savvy as you are. Of course, that is why Apple products continue to be preferred by most consumers, to the utter dismay of Android techies. But this isn't an Apple v. Android post, this is an Apple v. consumer post. Because as Apple continues to roll out new versions of its mobile operating system and its iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad, it is starting to make things more complicated for its customers, effecting its customer relations in ways it may not realize.
Take, for instance, the case of WiFi versus 3G. On Friday Apple will introduce a new version of its iPad that will be sold both as WiFi models and 3G models, of course. Two different versions of the 3G model will be introduced, one that will work on the AT&T; network, and one that will work on the Verizon network.

Consumers have been told that the new iPad will come with both a front and rear facing camera. Apple's own promotions play up the fact that if you buy a new iPad you will now be able to have nice long video chats with your girlfriend using your iPad, isn't that wonderful?

Of course, the reality continues to be completely different. First, although Apple played up the fact that they would make the FaceTime software open source so that other devices would use it, the reality remains that you can only use FaceTime if you are calling another iOS user -- iPhone to iPhone, iPad to iPhone, etc.

Most importantly, however, you can only use FaceTime when on a WiFi network. This makes FaceTime on the iPhone virtually worthless. I'm at a store and I want to show my friend something so I will use FaceTime, right? Not if I don't have a WiFi connection. So I take a picture and send it off via e-mail or MMS.

The iPad, being a more family room-oriented device, has the advantage of being more often in a WiFi environment -- that is, if it is in your home or mine. But many Americans still are without home WiFi. In fact, a recent survey showed that 32 percent of surveyed Americans attempt to access WiFi through their neighbor's Internet WiFi network, meaning they are themselves without such a network.

No WiFi, no FaceTime. Well, kinda.

You see current iPad owners who have bought their iPads through Verizon have a workaround. Since Apple did not make a 3G version of the iPad that will work on Verizon's network, Verizon has been selling the WiFi-only version of the iPad with their own MiFi solution. This device creates a local WiFi network that the iPad can connect to. WiFi equals FaceTime remember?

In reality, the MiFi is getting its Internet through 3G, but then is creating a WiFi network. The iPad only knows that it is accessing the Internet through WiFi, and though that connection will be slower than one directly through a router, it is still WiFi, and hence FaceTime will be allowed to work.

I called Apple about this today because this all seemed rather complicated and at odds with the way they say their products are supposed to work. But their representative confirmed that this workaround is valid.

So here is where we are: if you go to the store and buy a new iPad 2 and get the 3G model you may not be able to use FaceTime at home. But if you bought the original version and got the MiFi unit, then upgrade to iPad 2 you are set. Strange, huh? And not terribly customer friendly either.