It's been almost two years since I wrote the last installment of this epic journey. I've practically ceased blogging in favour of tweeting, but I do think it's worth an update now. After two years with the iPhone 3G on O2, I'm almost certainly going to switch... but I'm not sure who to go to yet, though.
Overall, I was impressed by O2's service. Their customer service was always very good, and their web interface quite functional. On both counts, I would rate them higher than both Three and Orange. I'm less impressed with their actual network service quality, both for talk and data... which is a bit of a problem, considering that's the whole point. Oddly, it's not their coverage I have a problem with, but the infrastructure: data speed on the iPhone is woefully slow and variable, and I've had more than a few dropped calls. In fact, one weekend in May, the net was down completely for a few hours.
So, then comes the iPhone 4.
As an iPhone developer (plug: Dingbats for iPhone) it's actually better to have the slowest and crappest, otherwise I wouldn't know if my software runs like a dog -- if at all -- for some of my customers. As a user, however, I was desperate to get off my two-year-old iPhone 3G and onto something a bit better. It also gives me a chance to bring Dingbats up-to-date and get a combined iPad/iPhone 4 update written (watch this space...)
Anyway, as I never upgraded to the 3GS, I've long since completed my 18-month sentence on O2's tariff, and switched down to Simplicity for iPhone (the lower-rate SIM-only package) back in January, so there's no real reason to stay with O2. However, the question is, who to go for? As my previous blog posts show, I've tried Orange and Three (although not with data service, and not recently), but not T-mobile, Vodafone or any of the virtual providers.
By now, we're talking mid-June. O2 have announced some of their tariffs, but notably NOT the handset prices. Meanwhile, the other networks are still fixed in a "Coming Soon" funk. So, for the time being I extrapolate the US pricing to gauge whether Apple are going to charge a premium on the iPhone 4 (unlikely at this point), and then assume the UK nets will keep roughly the same pricing, but maybe with a bit of an increase just for the hell of it.
On the morning of June 15th, my long-suffering client successfully puts in a pre-order for me for a SIM-less Apple iPhone 4. This seems like the best bet, and even if I were to go back to a subsidised contract, we could still sell the unopened SIM-less phone for a profit.
Plugging the numbers, it appeared that the networks add, on average, between £15 and £20 a month onto the tariff to subsidise the phone. This is borne out when O2 announce that existing customers still under contract can buy out for £20/month of remaining contract. There's nothing magical about this number: it's just O2 wanting to break even on the phone subsidy. When the calculations are done, buying the phone outright and getting a SIM-only plan appeared to be the same cost as a contract, but with some added advantages, especially when it comes to upgrading to "iPhone 5" in twelve months' time. In particular, the O2 12 month Simplicity for iPhone offer seems economically the best deal. Of course, this is still assuming the pricing stays the same.
This is also about the time the networks start talking about data capping. A quick calculation based on data from O2's site shows that I use, on average, only 30MB a month, with an all-time high of 60MB one month. Even more notably, I'm barely touching the inclusive minutes, as I tend to receive calls rather than make them.
However, the data calculation has to be taken with a fairly massive pinch of salt: I believe I would use the data service more if it wasn't so damn slow. In addition, the multitasking features of iOS4 give the phone the ability to draw a steady stream of data all the time. Even so, if I multiply up my predicted data usage by a factor of ten, I'm almost always within the proposed limits.
I also notice a neat little loophole: existing contracts would remain uncapped, although an upgrade triggers a new contract under the new terms. However, if the phone is purchased outright via Apple, for example, the existing old contract can be continued. So, if I were prepared to stump up £600 and remain with O2, I could remain uncapped. However, O2 still have a less-explicit cap on their data service anyway: it's so damn slow, I just don't have the patience to use more than 500MB a month anyway!
Finally, the tariffs start trickling out. O2 are first with their full pricing, followed by Orange and the others. Three are notably coy about their offering... as it turns out, right up until the morning of the release.
Anyway, it turns out the iPhone 4 hardware is marginally more expensive than the 3GS, and the tariffs are a little more expensive. This is not wholly unexpected. However, what is less obvious is that they've altered the balance slightly, and there is now a small benefit to getting the phone under contract rather than SIM-only, but it's still not a huge amount of money. SIM-only also gives the freedom to change networks when you decide they really do suck too much.
By now, I've also decided that Pay-As-You-Go is by far the most economic deal for me. This is fairly scary, as I've been on contract with one network or another continuously (and overlapping) with the same number since 1996. Well, almost the same number: they inserted a '7' into the area code a while back. PAYG has always been the less desirable option for me. However, looking at the tariffs now, I'm looking at a potential decrease of my bills from the £30/month of yesteryear and the £20/month of Simplicity for iPhone, down to something in the region of £5-£10/month on PAYG, no matter which network I go for.
Bugger the contract, then!
Still no idea of which network to go for, though.
Tesco have an interesting deal, but I note they're a virtual net served by O2, so presumably would have the same network quality issues.
T-Mobile and Orange are merging, and by all accounts, their merged 3G network will be epic. However, Orange's tariffs still aren't fully released when it comes to PAYG, and are a cryptic menagerie of combinations. It does look like "Racoon" might be the best choice for me, but I have a lingering feeling that the guy who came up with the "Rabbit" branding for what was to evolve into Orange is still stuck in a basement in Orange HQ somewhere, and has set up these tariff names as a futile call for help.
GiffGaff looks just about perfect for me, but again, they're on the O2 network. If Orange, T-mobile or Three launched a GiffGaff clone, I'd be extremely interested.
It then occurs to me that it doesn't actually matter! I've got a SIM-free phone coming, and I'm not under contract! Apart from the fact that I'll have to make a decision eventually just to choose where to transfer my number, I can get the PAYG SIMs from all the networks and give them a go for a while.
I do make a pact with myself though: whichever network gets me a micro-SIM sooner gets extra points.
Anyway, on the lead-up to June 24th, things still aren't clear: the only network that's articulating stuff clearly is O2, and even they're being quite cagey. Orange have changed their recorded message on the sales line to basically say "If you're calling about iPhone 4, sod off: we don't know anything more than you do." In fact, that might have been the exact wording, come to think of it. Three's blog is still packed with "Coming Soon... honest!" style blogs. I'm ignoring Vodafone though, as for some reason, I just can't quite cope with the idea of being a Vodafone customer.
What's absolutely shocking is that Apple managed to pre-sell 600,000 SIM-free iPhones in one day to the kind of people willing to lay down £600 on a product they haven't even seen yet, and yet the networks don't seem to be scrambling over each other to get a micro-SIM into these customers' hands! I mean, if I were running this thing, I'd be lobbying Apple to include a free micro-SIM in every single iPhone box, just on the off-chance that some of these affluent customers would consider switching to my network!
Instead, there's no information; queries are met with silence, or unhelpful robotic responses; and there's no sign of micro-SIMs anywhere. There's misinformation too: some customers are allegedly told by Three, for example, that the iPhone 4 doesn't even use micro-SIMs.
Anyway, O2 being the only network to have their shit together to some extent, I figure I should at least get a micro-SIM before launch so my new iPhone 4 isn't an expensive (but shiny) paperweight. I'm not happy with cutting my existing SIM down to size, as firstly, micro-SIMs aren't actually 100% the same as normal SIMs, as the newer micro-SIMs have some extra features; and secondly, because I want this done properly, damnit.
I contact O2 on the Friday before. Micro-SIMs are apparently available to SIM-free iPhone orderers from the O2 shops on Monday, as long as they bring ID, confirmation, blah blah blah... still strange that they're not handed out like lollipops, considering we're talking about a £0.20 piece of plastic that represents at least a few hundred pounds of potential revenue. Anyway, since the nearest O2 store is ten miles away, I ask O2 if one can be sent out. Apparently not. Oh well, one more nail in O2's coffin for me.
However, a few days later, on the Sunday before launch, I happen to be going to the Apple Store getting my MacBook Pro fixed, and I walk past the O2 store. The sales guy says micro-SIMs won't be available until launch, at which point I show him the O2 website. He pops into the back room to check and comes back with a micro-SIM. Turns out, he was wrong and they're available from tomorrow, as the website said, but he'd save me a journey back there. Nice!
So, I've now got a micro-SIM, albeit for the network I don't want to continue with. Oh well, at least the paperweight scenario isn't going to happen.
Thursday. Launch day. My client starts queuing with his son at Bluewater at the crack of dawn. As he wants an upgrade, he couldn't pre-order. His son, however, did manage to reserve one at the Apple Store, but Dad missed the boat. Anyway, his story is quite epic and includes what I believe is the first case of using a FourSquare Mayorship to bully a store manager. That's another story though.
My phone arrives via UPS around lunchtime, and I instantly start acting like a kid. O2 micro-SIM goes in, and all is well with the world.
However, I'm still on O2. So next up is the task of getting the micro-SIMs.
Three update their website the next day, giving the ability to order free micro-SIMs (finally!), so an order goes in with my name on it. Orange still have no clue.
The following week, the SIM arrives from Three. It's a full-size SIM, even though the delivery note says "micro". Oh well, after fighting Three's phone menu tree for about half-an-hour, I have a good bitch about it on their blog, and request a call back. I wait... time passes.
I get the callback, and get passed to another department. The guy claims that they're not offering micro-SIMs for PAYG, yet. I tell him to check the website. Hold. Yes, apparently you CAN order them after all. Order arranged; it'll be in the post. Next day, I get a response from Three's blog moderators: they want to help me get my micro-SIM. I explain it's already happening, but I do point out that others have reported the same problem. They investigate and find that a few full-size SIMs got sent out. They'll rectify it tonight and send out new micro-SIMs to those affected.
At this point, I must comment on this turn of events. The traditional customer service route was quite typical: a nightmare finding the right person to talk to, followed by an awkward discussion trying to explain what I want, followed by a few minutes on hold, and finally a resolution that's adequate, but leaves me thinking others in the same boat have just decided not to bother. The experience leaves me with a slightly lower opinion of Three.
In contrast, the social media approach worked a lot better: although Three don't (yet) have a Twitter feed or a private contact page, their blog operators interceded and had a proper conversation with me. I pointed out a wider issue, and they investigated it properly. I'm content in knowing that not only was my problem solved (as far as I can tell at the moment), but the overall systemic problem has been fixed and other customers aided at the same time. What was a problem has now been turned into an opportunity for Three to show that they can deal with problems competently. The experience leaves me with a higher opinion of Three.
This goes to show that social media works. The company gets better intelligence about their customers experiences, problems, and so forth; and the customers feel they're actually being listened to. It's a win-win.
Anyway, still no possibility of a micro-SIM from Orange. I called them: they've not got any idea.
Hey, Orange: every day you leave this is another day that I'm getting used to the idea of moving to Three permanently. Right now, Three are winning. Okay, my piddling little monthly spend is low at the moment, but back when I was in London, you were raking in ~£80/month from me. The return of that scenario is not out of the realm of possibility. I also get asked "which network?" by friends often enough to make sending me a micro-SIM worth at least 20p. Meanwhile, Three have apparently improved their network significantly since I left them, and if it performs better than O2, then it's going to be Good Enough, and it's also likely to be cheaper. Their tariffs also make more sense. I want to buy mobile phone service, not adopt an animal.
So, it's been a week with iPhone 4... the phone is lovely, except for the well-documented antenna issues. I'm still on O2, but I'm eager to make the call for my PAC code. I'm expecting a micro-SIM from Three in the next day or so, at which point my O2 SIM will go back in my old Nokia 6680 for a few days to use as my normal phone while I try out the Three data service in the iPhone 4, and if by any slim chance Orange get their act together and give me a micro-SIM, I might even try their service too.
However, Three are currently winning in my little competition. Let's see how they do.
On the matter of the antenna issue: I'm right-handed, but apparently left-eared; I seem to comprehend a conversation better when I'm using the phone in my left hand. Also, with the phone in my left hand, I can use my dominant right hand to operate it. Anyway, when I hold the iPhone naturally in my left hand, I get the dreaded signal degradation. I personally believe that:
- It might have something to do with the skin chemistry of the user, with capacitance, resistance, etc. being a function of the user's skin's pH, texture, suppleness, etc.
- It sounds like a software fix (for the phone's baseband) might alleviate the issue by changing the criteria by which the phone switches frequency. I can't wait to see.
- The fact that Apple aren't giving out their bumpers for free to fix this fundamental design flaw is shocking. With this issue, the iPhone is basically Not Fit For Purpose for some users, and for the cost of ~£0.50 of silicone rubber (notwithstanding the ~5000% of retail markup!) for what is basically an oversized LIVESTRONG bracelet, Apple are seriously pissing me off.
- This is a good example of the unfortunate hubris of Apple. I'm usually a huge fan of Apple and Jonathan Ive's designs, but I do believe that form should follow function, and the fact that the bumpers fix the problem show that if Apple had encased the antennas like normal, this would not have been an issue. Apple's a newcomer to mobile comms, and I think that the fact that we've never seen a bare-metal external antenna before is testament to the fact that it's a fairly crap idea. Looks nice, but that's not good enough.
- "Hold it differently"? I'll hold it the way I've always held a phone, thankyouverymuch. I wonder what reception would be like with my phone lodged firmly 'up' Steve Jobs. It's a £600 uninsured gadget made of slippery, fragile glass that's not readily replaceable, so I'll be damned if I'm going to hold it daintily.
- Don't talk to me about FaceTime. The keynote acted as if it was the first time we've ever had video calling on a mobile, but I first (and last!) used it in 2003. Okay, FaceTime's much better quality, but it was (again) hubris to act like it was a new thing. And it doesn't count unless it works over 3G. Sorry.
Anyway, if you've read this far, thank you! I should have edited this blog post down a bit, but once you get going, you know...
Oh, by the way, I typed all that on my iPad. Fantastic device. I never thought I'd actually like typing on a software keyboard this much. I just wish they'd get around to releasing iOS 4 for it.
Actually, on that point: why haven't any of the networks produced combined iPad/iPhone tariffs? One bill; two SIMs? For a start, both Orange and O2 have proper broadband operations and do try to crossbreed them with discounts given to customers who buy both mobile and home broadband from the same supplier. Why not the iPad too? Why not offer a £5/month Bolt-On package to add an iPad SIM to your existing iPhone tariff, using a shared (but increased) data usage allowance of, say, 1GB?
UPDATED (Friday 2 July 2010): As promised, I got a micro-SIM from Three this morning. I actually got two: one replacement as a result of the callback I had with Three CS; and a second with a new number as a result of the corrections made yesterday with an enclosed letter apologising for the mess-up. As I've already loaded up the original SIM with £10 of credit, I've used the replacement instead of the new one.
I've transferred my old O2 SIM to the Nokia (thankfully, I kept the original SIM-to-micro-SIM punchout surround) and have redirected calls to the new Three number temporarily. There was an annoying "Call Forwarding Active" popup that appeared when I tried to make calls, but by syncing with iTunes and getting the updated carrier settings, that's now gone.
Sitting at my desk, I've got five pips of reception on both Three and O2. Speed tests via the SpeedTest.Net iPhone app show download/upload/ping for O2 as ~1.5Mbps/~0.2Mbps/~400-9000ms; and for Three as ~2.2Mbps/~1.8Mbps/~200ms, so at first glance, it looks like Three's doing better. That's just the result of one test, though. Web browsing definitely feels a lot more responsive with Three than with O2.
The tariff is a little on the weak side, though: calls are ~25p a minute, which means my £10 of credit which gives me 40 minutes of calls, and data is 150MB per top-up, expiring after 90 days. So, I might be better off with their £15/month SIM-only 1 month rolling contract, rather than PAYG after all: it gives 300 minutes and 1GB of internet a month.
Three have also just launched "The One Plan", a tariff that gives 2,000 minutes of calls and 1GB of internet for £25 a month SIM-free on a 12 month contract. I don't want to be tied into any contract at the moment (as I'm clearly being fickle about networks right now), but I'd seriously consider it just for the 1GB alone.
Anyway, I'll keep an eye on this. I expect I'll make a decision to transfer next week, unless Orange do actually get a move on. I am still very eager to see how Orange's network works with data.