Is Apple fragmenting the iPhone?

iPhone 4 won't get the new turn-by-turn features in iOS 6, just like it didn't get Siri. But it's still for sale, and so is the iPhone 3GS. Is Apple committing the Android sin of fragmentation, and will users rebel?

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
4 min read
iOS 6 image: Well, it will take some iPhones and iPads to entirely new directions.
Well, it will take some iPhones and iPads to entirely new directions.

Way down in the fine print about Apple's upcoming iOS 6, you'll find a little note that says new features like Flyover and turn-by-turn directions are only available on the iPhone 4S, or the iPad 2 or higher.

A note immediately below that says Siri is only available on the iPhone 4S or third-generation iPad.

Since the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and iPad 2 are all actively for sale and still being marketed by Apple, I have to wonder: is Apple on the road to fragmenting the iOS experience? Could there come a future when not only do certain Apple apps and services run on some devices and not on others, but when this problem will start to plague third-party developers, as well? And even if app incompatibilities don't result, is Apple risking Android levels of user confusion as it continues to withhold features from its legacy -- but still for sale -- hardware?

This latest slight, keeping turn-by-turn directions off iPhone 4, is especially enraging. It was bad that the iPhone 4 didn't get Siri, much worse that it got no speech to text at all -- not even the little microphone on the keyboard that all Android phones, even the most basic, have. But to withhold turn-by-turn from the iPhone 4 isn't just fragmentation: it's deliberate, aggressive, and abusive forced upgrade behavior.

Sure, the original iPhone 4 is fully two years old -- the 4GB GSM version. You could argue it's just time for folks to upgrade (I'm not a fan of that argument, personally, since it's wasteful if the device works fine, and financially unfeasible for many). But that phone didn't become available on CDMA carriers until February 2011, so some Verizon owners have had it for less than 18 months. The white model didn't come out until April 2011, so fashionistas have had it for barely over a year. And the 8GB model came out in October 2011. That device is less than a year old, and in Apple's OS terms, it's so obsolete it doesn't get speech to text or turn by turn navigation, which have, for the past few years, been the two strongest arguments for getting an Android phone over an iPhone.

Image: Stare lovingly at these helpful directions, iPhone 4 owners. It's Apple's way or the lost highway.
Stare lovingly at these helpful directions, iPhone 4 owners. It's Apple's way or the lost highway.

To address, up front, the inevitable argument that the iPhone 4 may not be "capable" of handling turn-by-turn directions (or speech-to-text functionality, for that matter), I will point you not only to any number of midrange Android smart phones (like the same era LG Enlighten) that support both features. I will also point you to any number of iPhone GPS navigation apps that provide turn-by-turn, including the now free MapQuest and the very robust TomTom app, which has been around since the iPhone 3G. And then I will point you to a similar number of voice control apps, like Vlingo. (And in so doing, will solve your problems, too, but that's not the point!)

I'm quite certain the iPhone 4 can handle turn-by-turn and speech functionality. I'm equally certain that Apple kept it out on purpose, and it's not to help out app developers, it's to sell more newer phones, at a clip so fast it makes your head spin. It's a cycle that far outpaces most users' mobile contracts and certainly their wallets. An iPhone is a premium device, and users have a right to expect its features to keep pace with the competition for longer than eight months (in the case of the 8GB iPhone 4).

And Apple now has three versions of the iPhone for sale, each with a different feature set, not to mention three versions of the iPad, each with its own selection of omissions. That's an unusually complicated product scheme for Apple, and customers getting a free 3GS offer or now discounted iPhone 4 are in for a rude surprise when they find that their legacy Apple hardware can't do things that have been baked into every Android phone for years.

Image: Three phones, three different sets of features. How un-Apple of them!
Three phones, three different sets of features. How un-Apple of them!

I've written about Android fragmentation before, and many of you know I consider it the biggest threat to that platform's ongoing success. And Android's OS upgrade issues are probably worse than what Apple is currently doing with iOS 6 -- it's closer to differentiation than fragmentation, at least for the moment. And, as one commenter pointed out in a lengthy Google Plus discussion on the topic, you can upgrade your Apple hardware, but you can't force a carrier or Google to upgrade your version of Android.

But a developer writing for iPhone 4S and its processor capabilities could certainly run into problems with the same app on a legacy 3GS, or integrating with mapping features available only on a 4S. Depending on how many versions of the iPhone Apple keeps around after the next version is launched, you can imagine things starting to get awfully messy.

Even if true fragmentation never occurs, leaving the iPhone 4--a perfectly capable and powerful device--in the dust this soon is both unnecessary and inconsiderate. Apple has always pushed a rapid upgrade agenda, but not while continuing the sell the older versions. It's a bad trend, and could backfire as Android and even Windows 8 competition starts to grow. Simplicity works, Apple. Stick with it.