In a triumph of marketing, AT&T upgrades Apple's iPhone to '4G'

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As he was introducing the iPhone 4S last October, Phil Schiller took care to note that while the device had dramatically improved cellular data speeds, Apple wasn't yet calling it a "4G" device. "This is what the majority of our competitors claim when they talk about 4G performance," he said, comparing the iPhone's data speeds to a number of AT&T smartphones listed as "4G" despite their lack of next-generation LTE radios. "We're not going to get into a debate in the industry about what's 4G and what isn't — we'll leave that for others to talk about."

That debate has been conclusively decided. On Tuesday, Apple issued the iOS 5.1 software update, and with it came a small but hugely symbolic change: the AT&T iPhone 4S data indicator now reads "4G." Owners of the iPhone will notice no difference in performance or data transfer speeds; the device will not magically connect to AT&T's shiny new 4G LTE network. It will simply receive a deceptive labeling change that allows AT&T to market the iPhone as a 4G device against competitive phones from Verizon — including, perhaps most importantly, Verizon's own 3G iPhone 4S. It is a triumph of marketing for AT&T, and a rare acquiescence to a poor and confusing user experience for Apple.

Although Apple won't reveal the details behind the change, the company's official statement places the impetus squarely on AT&T. "AT&T has rolled out a nationwide HSPA+ network, and they refer to this high-speed network as 4G," a spokesperson told us. "With iOS 5.1, iPhone 4S will now see this reflected in the status bar." Compare that to the company's own marketing materials for the new iPad, which refer to HSPA+ as being among "the fastest 3G networks." Why the difference? The 4G LTE iPad itself offers the answer: there's no need to maintain the fiction of HSPA+ 4G when there's a real 4G network to sell instead. Still, AT&T's Seth Bloom is adamant that the iPhone 4S's new labeling is "essentially the same as many other current AT&T smartphones."

Of course, carrier misdirection about 4G is sadly old hat; AT&T's been claiming to run a 4G network for over a year now, and T-Mobile USA started this entire dubious trend in 2010 when it launched its "4G" network with a few press releases and a commercial starring a pretty brunette in a magenta dress making fun of the iPhone on AT&T. How did AT&T's Bloom react at the time?

"I think companies need to be careful that they're not misleading customers by labeling HSPA+ as a 4G technology."

It appears that AT&T and Apple have decided to throw caution to the wind.

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