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Are we at mobile technology’s final frontier?

Are we at mobile technology’s final frontier?

Is Apple being faced with a new competitor?

If you’ve found yourself wondering whether Apple’s iconic iPhone brand would ever face genuine competition from a manufacturer other than Samsung, then we may just have been given the answer – and surprisingly, the challenge has come from close to home.

There is much speculation that the iPhone 14, launched this week and expected to be released on September 16, will have emergency satellite capability that will see the mobile tech giant square off against Elon Musk’s Starlink/T-Mobile partnership to conquer technology’s final frontier.

But what has been largely missing from the hoo-hah surrounding the iPhone 14 launch at Apple’s ‘Far Out’ event on Wednesday is the fact that whilst both Apple and Starlink products have built-in satellite capability, neither of them can yet offer practical connectivity.

The Starlink/T-Mobile partnership has successfully paired standard smartphone hardware with a satellite provider, but none of the Musk company’s satellites are currently able to connect to any 5G smartphone now.

And with Musk admitting last month that ‘regulatory approval’ was hampering his company’s satellite launches the partnership doesn’t expect that to change before November 2023.

We’ve yet to find out whether Apple’s software is already capable of communicating with any orbiting satellite, but what is known is that the company doesn’t have any partnership in place with a satellite owner. What’s more, current indications are that the satellite function will only be available in North America.

So, in some senses the question of whether Apple’s device already has the technology to communicate with a satellite is moot.

The Challenger

Enter, the Bullitt phone is British designed and made and will launch in February next year with the ability to automatically link to one of two global satellite networks if there is no network or WiFi connection available.

Initially, the phone will only be able users to send and receive SMS messages by satellite, with the recipient able to respond if they use the Bullitt app to do it.

According to Bullitt, this service will be free to the recipient, but the Bullitt phone owner will have to pay a subscription for the service – and the company hasn’t yet indicated how those costs stack up, beyond confirming that they will be on a par with existing mobile tariffs and offered in tiered usage-based packages.

Bullitt’s co-founder Richard Wharton told the BBC this week that he was certain his company’s device would launch in February and that he was hopeful that the firm had jumped ahead of its competitors in the space race.

That said, if Apple has proved anything over the last decade and a half, it’s that it doesn’t drag its feet when it comes to innovation, and no one should be surprised if it turns out talks over a satellite partnership are already well advanced. Whether the details can be ironed out in the space of six months remains to be seen, of course.

The issue of competition aside, what’s beyond doubt is that the three-way race to market heralds the dawn of a new era in mass-market mobile communication and poses some serious questions for existing network providers about what their own business models should look like in in the future.

To begin with, satellite phones – for want of a better description – will almost certainly be rudimentary in terms of functionality. As the Bullitt launch proves, using a satellite signal to talk to someone on a sat-phone is still very much in the domain of the military.

But given most of us can probably remember quite vividly the days when playing Snake on a Nokia represented cutting edge tech, the time it takes to get to the kind of functionality we now take for granted on a smartphone is likely to be short, relatively-speaking.

And if Bullitt is able to deliver its product at a price that’s comparable to the kind of tariffs, we’re all currently playing, then being the first to market and offering a truly global satellite-based solution to the public could see the mobile market thrown open in ways we may not necessarily be able to imagine right now.

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