OK, hands up which of you have got a laptop with an embedded 3G modem?
Right, now you can put your hands down again. Yes, both of you.
There are plenty of mobile technology areas that are getting hype at the moment, but the one which seems to represent the greatest triumph of marketing over reality is that of laptops with built-in 3G modules. It's probably the area where an onslaught of PR by Ericsson, the GSMA and assorted mobile operators has been most successful in skewing the industry's view of supposed inevitability. And of course, it's an amusing shot across the bows of the WiMAX fleet, which is only expecting a handful of Intel "Echo Peak" embedded PCs at the end of the year in the US only.
The laptop manufacturers have been partly complicit in this, but only because they're being bribed with the promise of subsidies, or possible cold hard cash in terms of "activation bounties" when customers sign up.
I've written extensively before about why the Embedded Emperor has no clothes. It's also something that regularly crops up in client meetings with operators and others. When I asked to explain why there's such as gap between promise and reality, I typically get as far as saying something like "....and seventeenthly...." before the penny drops.
One of the biggest issues is consumer ignorance and apathy. Compared with 3G dongles, embedded laptops don't even register on the radar screens of Mr Average Customer (especially in the UK, which is awash with dongle advertising). My perception is that the whole idea of "connectivity on a USB stick" is a nice easy concept for retailer and customer alike, especially given the ubiquity of USB memory these days.
A dongle is simply "broadband on a stick", with a cute & memorable name.
Just in case I was missing something though, I thought I'd do a quick check on the current retail marketplace.
First stop, Dell's UK website. Nothing obvious on the main consumer laptop page - no mention of mobile in the bullet points for the key Inspiron & other brands. No mobile filter in the "narrow your selection" filter. But right at the bottom of the page is a Vodafone "partner" link (as well as two Tiscali fixed-broadband ones). That goes through to a dedicated Voda page with 18 and 24 month contracts described. And a sidebar with "To see the full range of Dell products with built-in mobile broadband, click here". Which doesn't have a live link, but just a note to the webmaster saying "needs link". Clicking through to a couple of the PCs, I could add in the (Voda-only) 3.6Mbit/s HSDPA card for £89 (personal user) or £120 (business user, with some fiddly rebate offer). Alternatively, I could go to the Vodafone site & get the same dataplans, but get a dongle for free - including a 7.2Mbit/s stick if you take a 24-month contract.
So, £90 for embedded, or £zero for a faster external dongle. Same Voda data plans. Hmm, tricky decision, that.
Next stop, Carphone Warehouse. The "Home of Free Laptops" - subsidies all round! And about 6 or 7 different sorts of PC, on all sorts of fixed & mobile broadband contracts, including Orange, 3 and T-Mobile. Toshiba, Acer, Fujitsu-Siemens. All of them based on dongles.
And it's Dongle City on T-Mobile's UK website as well. Not an embedded PC to be seen - until I clicked down through 3 layers of the site and eventually found Internet-Ready Laptops on a sidebar. The page looks like it hasn't been updated for a year, citing 1.8MBit/s speed and roaming available in "18 countries in July 2007". The Toshiba PC on the page was introduced in Nov 2006.
Even on T-Mobile's German website I couldn't find a laptop - and they've probably been Europe's most enthusiastic operator about the whole concept. Although it has got a very cool dongle with HSUPA, HSDPA and DVB-T digital terrestrial TV as well. That's really innovative and certainly differentiated from the embedded 3G modules... guess I'll be getting to "eighteenthly" next time I'm discussing this in a meeting.....