Apple threw its annual iPad-unveiling bash Wednesday, and it included a major milestone for the company. The new iPad is Apple’s very first 4G LTE product, with versions available that connect to either Verizon’s or AT&T’s LTE networks.
The carrier became a partner of Apple’s last fall, taking its place alongside AT&T and Verizon for the release of the iPhone 4S. Sprint was reported to have spent billions to add the iPhone to its portfolio of products, leading to a big increase in subscribers (if not profits) for the carrier, and helped catapult Apple to its best quarter ever.
So why was Sprint left off the guest list for the iPad party? Sure, the company doesn’t have an LTE network, but it has said publicly that it’ll be bringing one online toward the middle of this year.
It certainly has 3G covered, being the only one of the three iPhone carriers to still offer unlimited, non-throttled data plans for Apple’s smartphone.
Neither company is commenting as to why no Sprint iPad was revealed Wednesday, but those unlimited plans are a good place to start. After the Sprint iPhone was unleashed, it was quickly reported that many customers were experiencing poor connection speeds. If Sprint’s 3G network is stressing already with the iPhone, adding the iPad to that mix could exacerbate things.
Still, that’s just scratching the surface. The main reason is likely LTE, or Sprint’s lack of it. Although Sprint says its next-generation network will begin to come online in by summer 2012, it would be a hard sell to customers to buy an iPad with connectivity that isn’t enabled yet (“Buy this 4G iPad, which is just 3G for the next four months!”).
That goes double since the other 4G iPads don’t require a contract. Even if I’m a Sprint customer, I can get an AT&T or Verizon iPad with no commitments.
There’s also a technical reason behind the lack of a Sprint iPad. AT&T and Verizon use different frequency bands for LTE and completely different technologies for 3G. Phil Schiller probably wasn’t exaggerating when he said the new iPad offers more connectivity options than any consumer-electronics device ever.
Sprint’s LTE is in yet another frequency band. Add to that the fact that Sprint is still polishing its LTE technology, and its technical specifications are in flux. For either company, spending the money to offer a yet another radio that may or may not be compatible with a network that’s still months away would be foolhardy.
So why not just a 3G version? Because it gets too complicated for the consumer. Since the data rates for Sprint’s 3G EV-DO network would be much slower than LTE, the Sprint iPad would have to be priced lower than the 4G iPads, yet higher than the Wi-Fi-only models. That’s just too many price points.
True, the prices remained the same across all three carriers for the iPhone 4S, even when Apple went on record touting the superior connectivity of the AT&T version. But because iPad network connectivity is sold without a contract, they can’t do the same thing here. No one’s going to buy a 3G Sprint iPad for $629 when there’s a way-faster LTE Verizon iPad on the next shelf for the same price.
Besides, the iPhone-connection issue was essentially comparing 3G speeds. LTE is a generational leap, with much faster data rates than the technology in any current iPhone (I don’t care that AT&T convinced Apple to say its iPhone is “4G” — it’s really just sorta-fast 3G compared to LTE).
Sprint needs to cross into that generation if it wants to score an invite to Apple’s soirée next year. There’s every reason to believe it will — and there’s even an outside shot at lower-key event to introduce a Sprint version of the current iPad late this year.
LTE is the future, and although Sprint clung to “stopgap” technologies like WiMax too long to get an iPad this year, it’s on course to get to the party fashionably late.
BONUS: The New iPad in Detail
1. Retina Display
The most touted feature of the new iPad is its ultra-high-resolution "retina" display, which clocks in at 2,048 x 1,536 pixels -- a million more pixels than a 1080p HDTV. Thanks to the extra pixels and the iPad's new graphics processor, the screen has 44% better color saturation. The screen's pixels are so small, Apple says it had to change the design of the LCD itself to elevate the pixels above the circuitry to prevent distortion. Apple calls it the best display ever made for a mobile device, and -- from the specs -- it's hard to disagree.