If the four major U.S. carriers haven’t conspired, separately or collectively, to delay the iPhone 5 release date until later this year, then it sure as heck looks a lot like they have. While most signs point to the iPhone 5 (here’s the scoop on iPhone 5 features) arriving the latest of any new iPhone generation in its respective year, no clear reason for a delay on Apple’s part have surfaced. Even as Apple attempts to extend the iPhone 4 era with the white iPhone 4, the Verizon-specific iPhone 4, and whatever other iPhone 4 tricks might be up its sleeve, it’s still a mystery as to why the iPhone 5 apparently isn’t on track for summer 2011 release, even as customers prepare to feel the burn. For insight as to what’s really going on, one might best look at those who have the most to gain from a late iPhone 5 arrival, and their primary motivation for it. The latter is clearly 4G, and the former comes in the form of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and even Sprint.
First there’s Verizon, which is in the process of betting its reputation on a 4G LTE network that it’s barely begun building. The millions of Verizon customers who just bought the Verizon iPhone 4 when it launched earlier this year are going to be more likely to upgrade to the Verizon iPhone 5 if more time has passed since the launch of the former. Then there’s AT&T, which still has almost no 4G presence at all. The carrier needs time to integrate T-Mobile’s network into its own, which will allow it to offer “4G” of one kind or another in various places. Assuming the iPhone 5 includes multiple 4G variants, AT&T could be the big winner – but not until the merger is sufficiently complete; a 4G LTE iPhone 5 launch right now could do AT&T more harm than good. And then there’s Sprint, which is about to become the only major U.S. carrier without the iPhone, and the smallest. Sprint is unlikely to add the iPhone to its lineup until 4G happens, so if Apple needs more time to make a 4G enabled iPhone 5 happen, then so be it. Bottom line, the carriers desperately want 4G to be accepted by the public, as it’s their collective best shot at continuing to upgrade cycle of new smartphone hardware this year and next, even as speeds and capacities begin to surpass what a pocket sized device might reasonably need. And because the public will begin caring about 4G at the precise moment the iPhone gains 4G, the behind the scenes pressure on Apple to release a 4G iPhone 5 is enormous. If pulling that off takes a little longer than expected and the iPhone 5 release date is held back by a season as a result, the public may be less than thrilled but the carriers won’t mind a bit. Here’s more on the iPhone 5.