Steve Jobs: Doesn’t Get Mobile, Completely Full Of It, Or Both?

I was perfectly happy to largely ignore the iPhone and just find somebody else’s to play with, until a day or two ago. As Friday’s launch has neared, I’ve felt more and more inclind to get one — though the prospect of dropping $500 and being tied to AT&T for two years isn’t appealing at all. Despite my long-held skepticism over the device, I’m genuinely curious to get one and be able to check it out for a while.

As I said, being an AT&T customer for two years is not an exciting prospect for me. I was a customer of the old AT&T Wireless, and bolted within days of the US launch of mobile number portability. So that’s a big stumbling block. But the fact that the iPhone only has an EDGE connection (even though that’s what I trudge along with on T-Mobile) is, for me, the biggest problem. For such a supposedly ground-breaking device, particularly one that makes such a big deal of its “full” web browser, EDGE isn’t excusable, and certainly isn’t worth hanging on to for the duration of a two-year contract.

With that in mind, check out this WSJ interview with Steve Jobs and Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T. It’s worth a read, but the part I’ve highlighted here — Jobs’ defense of only using EDGE — really makes me wonder if he, and Apple understand mobile very well:

Mr. Jobs: You know every (AT&T) Blackberry gets its mail over EDGE. It turns out EDGE is great for mail, and it works well for maps and a whole bunch of other stuff. Where you wish you had faster speed is…on a Web browser. It’s good enough, but you wish it was a little faster. That’s where sandwiching EDGE with Wi-Fi really makes sense because Wi-Fi is much faster than any 3G network.

What we’ve done with the iPhone is we’ve made it so that it will automatically switch to a known Wi-Fi network whenever it finds it. So you don’t have to go hunting around, resetting the phone, flipping a switch or doing anything. Most of us have Wi-Fi networks around us most of the time at home and at work. There’s often times a Wi-Fi network that you can join whether you’re sitting in a coffee shop or even walking along the street piggybacking on somebody’s home Wi-Fi network. What we found is the combination is working really well.

When we looked at 3G, the chipsets are not quite mature, in the sense that they’re not low-enough power for what we were looking for. They were not integrated enough, so they took up too much physical space. We cared a lot about battery life and we cared a lot about physical size. Down the road, I’m sure some of those tradeoffs will become more favorable towards 3G but as of now we think we made a pretty good doggone decision.

It’s lovely that the iPhone has Wi-Fi; fantastic that it will find and connect to networks on its own. But the fact remains that Wi-Fi is not a mobile technology. As Jobs says, it’s great for when you’re in a home, office or someplace with a hotspot. But we’re talking about a mobile device here, not a portable or nomadic one. The user experience — particularly for a device that Apple’s relentlessly hyped as the best thing ever — shouldn’t take such a hit when you’re on the mobile network. The point of mobile devices is that they cut geographic ties to networks. A heavy reliance on WiFi really doesn’t do this.

Furthermore, Jobs’ excuse that 3G chipsets “are not quite mature”, particularly in terms of power consumption and physical size, isn’t particularly compelling. This trade-off (taking his comment at face value) would seem to reflect that it’s more important for Apple to deliver a device that’s built around the media playback experience, rather than the mobile user experience, by putting heavy battery-life demands ahead of data speeds.

So what’s the deal? Are Steve’s excuses just a lame attempt to cover up some other motivation for not including 3G, financial or otherwise? Or does it simply reflect a really poor understanding of mobile?

Update: Apparently AT&T has goosed the speeds of its EDGE network, with some users reporting a significant increase in speeds, up closer to 200 kbps.

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