Does “iPhone 3,1” mean anything to you? If not, let me give you a hint. In the fall of 2008, handsets with an “iPhone 2,1” attribute were hitting web sites, presumably to test the future iPhone 3GS. It’s a year later and the identifying string has increased, so it’s a safe bet that a new handset is under testing. While it could well be new software, and not new hardware, odds are pretty solid that some new iPhone hardware is getting some hands-on time internally at Apple (s aapl).
The timing of this sounds normal, as Apple is generally on a yearly cycle with its handsets — another good reason that U.S. cellular contracts shouldn’t be two years, but that’s another matter. But the timing of something else might be a factor here as well. At least one analyst is on record saying that AT&T (s t) will lose its iPhone exclusivity here in the middle of 2010. That’s when the next iPhone refresh is due out, so to only expect a GSM version in the U.S. might not be a reasonable expectation. Talk of the potential Verizon (s vz) iPhone is starting to get louder.
Over the weekend, I read Colin Gibbs’s piece on GigaOM Pro (subscription required) because he thinks Apple could or should go with Sprint (s s) for an iPhone. That approach surprised me, but it has some merit if you believe in the WiMAX model and Sprint craves more hot handset launches since the Palm Pre and recent Google (s goog) handsets. I’m more inclined to think Apple will go with Verizon over Sprint, however. A handset with WiMAX capabilities will be far more limited in terms of coverage for starters. And Verizon is already progressing with a transition to LTE for its next-generation network, which just happens to be the same technology that AT&T will use. Having an iPhone that’s compatible with the two largest U.S. carriers opens up iPhone ownership opportunities that Apple just can’t pass up.
From what I read at Fone Frenzy, it sounds like this is exactly what’s happening. The site claims a source with this quote:
“My sources have confirmed that Apple and Verizon have been testing a iPhone on Verizon’s 4G LTE network.”
We already know that Verizon plans to have 25 to 30 markets covered with LTE service by the end of 2010, so preliminary network testing could already be in play. While I don’t know who the sources are at Fone Frenzy, it’s plausible that an iPhone with LTE service could be in early test stages. And with a huge opportunity to build a 4G phone that could work on the two biggest carriers in the country, it just makes sense.