iPhone owners love Apple's smartphone, hate AT&T, survey says

Ire at AT&T could push Apple to open iPhone to other carriers 'soon,' says researcher

Owners of Apple's new iPhone 3GS love the device, but more than half of them hate AT&T, the smartphone's exclusive mobile carrier in the U.S., according to a just-released survey.

"There's no indication that Apple's AT&T problem is going away," said Paul Carton, research director at ChangeWave Research. "The better consumers feel about their iPhones, the worse they feel about AT&T."

Carton said that the latest ChangeWave survey, which polled nearly 200 owners of Apple's newest iPhone model, the 3GS, showed a "near-perfect satisfaction rating" for the product. More than eight of every ten iPhone 3GS owners said they were "very satisfied" with the smartphone, while another 17% said they were "somewhat satisfied."

"Extraordinary," is how Carton interpreted the 97% total. "That's the highest ratings we have ever had for any smartphone, including previous iPhones," he said.

But the poll also revealed major dissatisfaction with AT&T, the lone mobile service provider allowed to sell calling plans for the iPhone in the U.S.

When asked to name their top dislikes about the iPhone, 32% named iPhone lock-in with AT&T, while 23% pegged AT&T's calling and data coverage, service quality and service speed. Both responses, however, came in behind iPhone battery issues, which was the No. 1 dislike.

"One in two said AT&T was a top dislike," said Carton. "That speaks for itself. The AT&T problem is by far the most significant pitfall of the iPhone."

According to one consumer who participated in the survey, AT&T's network coverage and speed is "nothing to write home about," and "still drops a lot of calls."

iPhone owners started complaining about AT&T within weeks of the smartphone's launch two years ago, but the griping reached even higher levels last fall, when several users filed lawsuits that claimed Apple and AT&T were responsible for constantly-dropped calls, poor connections and slower-than-advertised data speeds. A dozen of those lawsuits, all which sought class-action status, were consolidated into one action last month by a panel of federal judges.

Meanwhile, AT&T has reportedly been pushing Apple for an extension to the exclusive deal, hoping to lock in the California computer and consumer electronics maker until at least 2011. Analysts have said it wouldn't be in Apple's interest to agree, and have speculated that the company will, in fact, open the iPhone to other carriers next year. Verizon is typically the provider at the top of their list, as well as consumers' lists.

"Our survey results suggest that Apple will be forced to deal with the [exclusivity] issue sooner than many analysts expect," said Carton.

Last month, in fact, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said the exclusive agreement with Apple would not last forever, a clue that some read as indicating AT&T had not been able to reach agreement with Apple.

ChangeWave also polled a much smaller number of owners of the Palm Pre, that company's attempt to revitalize its once-dominating place in the smartphone market. The Pre's satisfaction scores were cumulatively close to the iPhone's, but the "very satisfied" and "somewhat satisfied" split wasn't as positive: The former received 45% of the votes, while the latter got 42%.

Even so, Carton said that the Pre's rating, especially so soon after its launch, was "quite extraordinary."

"It's entered the pantheon of the top three with Apple and RIM," he said, referring to Research in Motion's BlackBerry.

Ironically, Apple and Palm have been tussling over iTunes, the former's online music store. Palm disguised the Pre as an iPod to iTunes in order to let Pre users synchronize their music using Apple's software; Apple retaliated by disabling the functionality, but Palm re-enabled the feature a week later.

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