Will AT&T Fence in the New iPhone?

By now, those who care about the upcoming fourth-generation iPhone have seen the pictures that surfaced courtesy of Gizmodo and are likely wondering what Apple will do next. But here at GigaOM, we’re wondering how AT&T’s role as the exclusive provider of the iPhone will affect some of the promising features such pics displayed. One of them may not be supported and another further locks the iPhone to AT&T, while a third could help improve call quality on the carrier’s network.
Front-facing camera — In trying to predict iPhone 4.0 OS features, I said that the platform would add support for a second camera. The new iPhone does indeed sport a front-facing camera, presumably for video chatting since the camera on the back is for snapping photos while using the display as a viewfinder. Such a feature is welcome as we find new ways to connect with the people in our lives, but will AT&T (s t) support such a feature?
The carrier currently offers video services on its phones, but only for one-way video and at a cost of up to $9.99 per month. If Apple’s (s aapl) front-facing camera is meant for two-way video conversation, AT&T will need to create a new offering. And it remains to be seen if AT&T customers will pay for another add-on service. Also possible is a lack of initial support for the camera; after all, AT&T (s t) has yet to offer the iPhone tethering feature that arrived in the last major software iteration.
Micro SIM — Just like the iPad 3G model, the new iPhone will purportedly use a micro SIM card. For consumers that don’t swap SIM cards often, such use would be a non-issue, although I anticipate some hackery — folks will invariably try to use the cheaper 3G plan of the iPad by putting its micro SIM card in the new iPhone for data services. Abroad, where SIM card swapping is prevalent, it could generate some backlash as few phone models currently use the micro SIM form factor.
Here in the U.S, some iPhone owners use a T-Mobile SIM card to extricate themselves from AT&T’s network. But T-Mobile doesn’t yet use micro versions of such cards in handsets, so unless consumers want to trim their existing T-Mobile SIM cards to fit, the new iPhone will be completely tied to AT&T.
Secondary microphone and new back cover — A hole atop the handset appears to be a second microphone, which should help improve voice quality both on calls and for the advanced voice-control features I anticipate in iPhone 4.0 OS. With the right signal processor and software solution, a secondary microphone vastly improves the voice experience  — my Nexus One (s goog) offers one, and after using it I wouldn’t want to go back to a smartphone that didn’t. And with a new, clear back on the device, which appears to be ceramic or plastic, the next iPhone will be able to get a stronger cellular signal — improving the voice experience on AT&T’s network that much more.
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Image credit: Gizmodo
This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com