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Apple’s World Phone Isn’t Global for Customers

The ballyhoo about Apple selling a hybrid GSM/CDMA iPhone, one in which the dominant GSM standard and less-used but still significant CDMA flavor are both available in a single handset, is overblown for consumers. Most iPhone 4S buyers won’t benefit at all.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s a terrific move for Apple, because creating a single phone that works in every market in the world with nearly every major carrier dramatically reduces manufacturing costs. (China is the only significant country where even the iPhone 4S won’t work universally, since one of China’s three carriers relies on the government-backed TD-SCDMA variant.)

The dual-standard iPhone 4S is also a boon for CDMA carriers, which have lagged in terms of selection of smartphones offered, giving such operators worldwide — including Sprint in the United States — access to the most advanced Apple phone. For Verizon Wireless, a CDMA phone that can roam onto GSM networks fits in neatly with its minority ownership by Vodafone, a major worldwide mobile operator which uses only GSM globally.

But Danny Sullivan, a long-time colleague who typically focuses on search-engine matters, read all the fine print and discovered that most consumers won’t benefit at all from owning a dual-standard iPhone 4S.

He notes that if you buy a phone under contract from a GSM carrier, CDMA is neither activated nor available. Obtain a phone with a contract from a CDMA provider, and GSM is turned on only if you pay the carrier to enable global roaming, and even then, the slot is likely locked to a SIM provided by the carrier to work with its international roaming partners.

Apple says it will sell an unlocked version of the iPhone 4S next month, but the unlocked iPhone 4S will be available for use only on GSM networks. The CDMA capabilities might as well be non-existent. Read Sullivan’s article for all the fine points that he’s pulled together from various publicly available documents at Apple’s and Verizon’s sites.

For Verizon Wireless and Sprint customers who travel frequently, the GSM/CDMA switch might seem to be useful. The only problem is that all such travelers I know rely on cheap unlocked phones and foreign SIMs that enable them to pay an order of magnitude less than what Verizon and Sprint charge for using a U.S. phone to call and transfer data outside our borders.

The upshot is that Apple’s remarkable world phone is remarkable for the money it saves Apple and the markets into which it enables the company to expand while maintaining high profit margins. Like Google’s “open,” in which the meaning is really “open to handset makers to modify and control,” Apple’s world phone benefits international companies — not the global village.

Update: Jason Snell has the detail at Macworld that Sprint has opted not to lock the micro-SIM slot in the iPhone 4S that it sells, while Verizon Wireless will (as with other phones) unlock the slot after you have been paying your bills on time for 60 days (“a customer in good standing”). That makes the CDMA models much more appealing for world travel.

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