Editorial: Apple Is Not The Company That Stands Up To The Carriers

I've noticed a frame narrative over the past few months that crawls out of the woodwork whenever Apple's dealings with the carriers is discussed. Apple is frequently held up, either explicitly or implicitly, as the company that fights the carriers. In this superhero-esque tale, Apple goes to bat for the little guy whenever they are forced to talk to the scum at Verizon or AT&T. They are the chosen one, the one that will free us from the overhanded reign of the carrier and finally turn our networks into the dumb pipes they really are. Need evidence? Look no farther than the lack of carrier branding or software. Apple really, really cares. 

The problem with this narrative is that it's fiction, pure and simple.

The lack of carrier branding on Apple devices is certainly cool; but it is not indicative of a company that can write it's own cheque when working with wireless service providers. This isn't an indictment of Apple - no manufacturer can hope to fully bend a national carrier to it's will. Economics prevent anyone from doing that.

The carriers are the bottle neck that controls access to a scarce resource that is only growing more scarce. They can, and do, exert a great deal of control over what happens on their airwaves. Apple's large market share and cachet with gadget hounds doesn't help here. When wheeling and dealing with Cupertino the carriers should be able to point to the massive resource drain of iOS users.

Economics of scale, as good as they have been to Apple's margins, can't be helping matters when brought up in back room discussions with the carriers. Something has to give, and Apple eventually settles. So what happens? You can't download over 20 megabytes of data off WiFi. You could not, for a very long time, send a MMS on AT&T. That lovely GMS chipset in your CDMA iPhone? Probably locked. None of this is that big of a deal. Unless you happen to fall into a special category of consumer these are just grating annoyances that accompany an otherwise stellar journey with a stellar device. But they speak to a fundamental truth, one some people won't acknowledge. Apple does not fully control their devices.

They may be able to hold out for a clean back and a clean install (no mean feat on Verizon), but beyond that they are powerless. Every manufacturer is. Maybe at a later date, with a few billion more dollars, Apple will find itself willing and able to fight the carriers, to stand up for the consumer and demand a better experience.

Maybe it won't be Apple, but a software or services provider worried about it's mobile software being at the mercy of the carriers. Maybe the challenge will never come. But until it does, the implication that Apple is battling wireless providers cannot be.  They aren't sticking up for the end users' experience, because they can't. Disagree? I'll change my mind when you can show me how to download Infinity Blade over 3G.