Why The iPhone 3G S May Be A Sucker's Bet Right Now

picture-17The new iPhone 3G S sounds great. It’s not a huge update to the iPhone, but it packs a few very important things: More speed, more storage, more battery and a better camera that can do video. It’s a no-brainer to upgrade to it, just as many did from the original iPhone to the iPhone 3G last year, right? Wrong.

While current iPhone owners last year got to upgrade to the iPhone 3G for the fully subsidized $199 and $299 prices, the same will not be true this year. Instead, current iPhone 3G owners only 1 year into their 2 year contracts, will have to pay $399 and $499 to upgrade. The reason for this is simple: AT&T subsidizes the phone down to $199 based on a 2-year payment agreement with the customer. If you only paid one year of that contract, AT&T would have to eat those costs. So instead it’s putting that cost back into this new phone. It didn’t do that last year, because the original iPhone wasn’t subsidized. It makes sense, but here’s why that’s a bad idea.

There are no shortage of AT&T iPhone customers who are pissed off at the company. Not only is their service sketchy at best in many places (I have spotty service in San Francisco, but it was much worse when I was in NYC this past week), but they do things like delay the roll out of features that the rest of the world is getting because they have other providers. And they do things like block the Sling player app from streaming over 3G on just the iPhone, while it works fine on other phones. And they rip us off with text messages (as do other carriers, though AT&T was particularly bad when moving from the original iPhone to the iPhone 3G). The list goes on.

Why this matters is that the dislike of AT&T, mixed with a not huge update to the iPhone and a higher subsidized price could be a perfect storm for users that normally would upgrade, not to. I probably will because the iPhone is integral to my work and I could use more speed and power, but the fact that I’m questioning it should say something. I didn’t question it for a second last year.

But here’s why it’s really a very questionable upgrade: Because Apple is at some point going to move the iPhone beyond the AT&T network. That move could happen as soon as next year. If you buy this iPhone 3G S now, you’ll be locked in for two more years (or have to pay the large cancellation fee). Now, AT&T is trying to negotiate with Apple to extend its exclusive deal through 2011, in which case the move to the iPhone 3G S would make some sense. But that has not happened yet, and AT&T is playing in risky waters. If I learned tomorrow that AT&T and Apple were ending their exclusive deal in 2010, there is no way I would upgrade. I’d suck it up and wait for a year.

That’s why it may have been smart for AT&T to extend an olive branch to current iPhone users and give them the same subsidized price as new users. Sure, they would have taken a hit, probably a fairly big one, but big picture, I don’t think it would be all that bad. First of all, not all current owners would upgrade even at the lower price. Second, if you think about it, it’s not really that big of a hit for them. It’s really only $200 per customer — AT&T makes that off of me in two months with my bill. And if they do lose the Apple exclusivity, they will effectively be losing $1,200 (one year’s worth of bills) that I otherwise would have been paying them.

Instead, basically what it will sounds like to most current iPhone owners is AT&T saying that, “we love you as a customer so much that we’re going to make you pay an extra $200 for this new device since you stuck around with us.” That $399 to $499 for the iPhone 3G S could end up costing you a lot more if Apple moves the iPhone beyond AT&T. And that sucks, because I want it. But I’m very worried it won’t be worth it.