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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

3G-embedded laptops.... I'm not convinced

There seems to be a lot of talk surrounding the notion that millions of laptops will ship with a mobile operator's HSDPA or EV-DO card embedded. And I don't mean just putting the antenna inside the casing (which makes sense), but the whole operator-specific build, with their preferred card & preloaded software.

I reckon it's nonsense.

Who on earth is going to want to buy a laptop that locks them into a specific service provider and a contract? Especially one that has patchy (at best) indoor coverage, and in most cases hasn't yet got the whole "quad-play" or "multi-access" thing sorted?

Let's think about this a bit deeper. Laptops are bought by 2 main groups - consumers and enterprises.

Business users first. While some users are truly nomadic, most business people will use their PCs in the office a lot of the time. Where the preference from the IT staff (and users) will be to hook into the office LAN, either via a nice 100Mbit/s zero-latency ethernet wire, or via the increasingly secure and reliable office WLAN, designed for decent capacity and coverage through the building. So the connection management software (presumably customised by the operator) will need to support an algorithm that says "use the fixed LAN as a first priority, then the company's private WLAN if available, then public WLAN, and finally 3G when out of the office". I'm skeptical that many operators will be keen to set things up that way.

Especially if you're paying per megabyte or anything other than completely uncapped flatrate charges. I can just imagine the idea of paying $$$ to access your data, from your server, in your basement, when you're sitting in your office on your PC. Or whether the connection manager will be smart enough to stop you automatically downloading 10MB of email or virus updates when you’re roaming internationally at $$$$$$ per meg? Or if your backup software decides to back up your hard drive on schedule, over cellular. And I wonder how well this will work with company-mandated security and authentication software? It's bad enough that you end up using expensive cellular voice in-building when's there a "free" PBX phone next to you. CIOs and CFOs already hate this enough to clamour for dual-mode WiFi phones before vendors have them ready. The idea that they'll be happy to let you use expensive cellular data in-building when there's a much faster & more reliable LAN next to you (or wireless) is ludicrous.

So, with the possible exception of a few ultimate "road warriers" and select number of self-employed users, this is a complete non-starter in my view.

Now, consumers. This is where the issue of subsidies is more relevant. I suppose it comes down to the level of subsidy - if carriers start giving "free laptops, but you have to use our service" then some people might go for it, although they're probably the same people that use phones on prepay, not on contract, and I don't see that as an option here. And, again, will it let you set preferences like “use WiFi where you can, and HSDPA where you have to”? (and don’t say it’ll make WiFi irrelevant – you’ll want to connect to your corporate LAN/WLAN while in the office, and your proper broadband at home – and, if you’re happy with security risks, free WiFi wherever, as I’m doing now to write this blog).

Let’s face facts. Nobody buys a PC with a bundled ISP deal, wireless or otherwise. People tried the whole "free PC" thing years ago & it failed. At best, you get a few months free & a couple of CDs in the box. Oh, and while various laptop suppliers seem happy to have their PCs subsidised by carriers, has anyone thought what this is likely to do to inventory costs for retailers? I can just imagine PC World’s CFO being told he needs to expand his warehouse to accommodate 5 different operator-specific versions of each PC, or that he needs to get his staff to customise each with specific operator SIMs and software.

And can you imagine, in a couple of years' time, that it'll have a software upgrade that will only allow you to use applications that route via the IMS network? Yeah, right.

You could argue that a laptop is just a "big smartphone" and that people buy those from an operator & don't complain. The difference here is usage cases - and the role of Microsoft. On the PC, the browser (and Office, or corporate applications) is the killer app. You want maximum speed, minimum latency and maximum coverage. You'll tend to use various of the ports for USB peripherals, LAN connections and so forth. You'll have myriad drivers for bits of hardware, which may conflict with the data card. You'll have various communications apps.

Maybe I'm missing something obvious. But while I'm happy to have a T-Mobile customised MDA, I want to buy my laptop "vanilla" from Samsung or Dell and use it how I want, with whichever service provider I want.

I think that this particular Emperor has no clothes.

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