What Will It Take for Embedded 3G Laptops To Take Off?

Includes: ERIC, SWIR, VOD
by: Dean Bubley

I've written at length before about how I believe that 3G-embedded PCs, although seeming at first glance like an 'elegant' solution to mobile broadband, are in fact currently a poor proposition for most users. And indeed the market has borne this out - the vast majority of new sign ups for mobile broadband are with USB 'dongle' modems or various forms of after-market PC card. Operators like 3 in the UK are pitching 3G dongles at consumers (even in black, pink, leopard-print and so on), and Vodafone (NASDAQ:VOD) has just announced "stick" USB modems this morning.

However, some suppliers such as Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) continue to bang the gong about embedded modules. I've seen it issue rather optimistic predictions about 50% penetration of embedded 3G in laptops in 3-4 years' time. Now arguably, if the price comes down far enough (ie close to zero), then yes, you could have 3G in most PCs. But that doesn't mean that people would actually use it - after all, there's plenty of unused capabilities in a typical computer (how many of you use FireWire?).

If it's just a tick-box item that's left dormant, the PC manufacturers will nail your margins to the floor. For Ericsson (and anyone else) to make money from 3G modules for PC and other consumer products, they'll actually need to be used by a decent proportion of customers. But here's the problem: Most people will not want to buy a laptop that is tied to a monthly subscription, especially not to a single specific operator for the entire life of the laptop.

Fundamentally, a laptop is a computing device. People are used to buying computing devices and owning them outright, not having them tied to a service provider that might try and get in the way of your use of it. Sure, some enterprises might lease them or get HP (NYSE:HPQ) or IBM (NYSE:IBM) to do a "desktop outsourcing" contract, but generally there's no service model embedded in the PC ownership and usage experience. You get your broadband separate from your PC. Part of the reason is that the lifespan of a PC is >> length of a typically-desired contract.

Consumers aren't stupid - they know there's a reasonable chance they'll want to churn over the course of 36 or 48 months, as they know how fast capabilities and prices evolve. While the operators would love them to stay loyal, they'll really have to bribe them heavily to achieve this.

Yes, there are always going to be exceptions. High-end business users with well-known typical usage patterns. Students for whom you subsidise the laptop down to zero, in return for a per-month subscription (essentially acting as a laptop consumer finance provider). But for most people and enterprises, mobile broadband will have to fit the model of separating the OPEX and the CAPEX. Buy the laptop, and then conduct other transcations to provide connectivity.

This is why the standalone USB modems make so much sense - consumers can make a separate decision about computing and connectivity, just the same as they do with their home broadband, or their business IP-VPN. Recent trends towards openness in the smartphone space would seem to suggest that some currently locked parts of the handset market are moving towards device/access separation there as well.

So... what would it take to actually convince a lot of people to use 3G via embedded laptop modules? What needs to change? What pressure do the laptop vendors need to exert on the operators? The following list is what needs to happen if big numbers of people are really going to start using 3G functions embedded in PCs. Some will deeply irritate mobile operators, so traditional cellular operator-centric companies like Ericsson or Sierra Wireless (NASDAQ:SWIR) will need to ask themselves if they're truly prepared to be hardcore about this, or whether they should switch focus to separate USB modems.

  • Make the laptops totally operator-agnostic. People buy laptops for a lot of reasons - power, screen, keyboard feel, brand, aesthetics, corporate purchasing rules and so on. Let them select the one they want, not one of a handful supported by a specific operator. Don't have it shipped with pre-loaded operator-specific software. Let them choose an operator after they've bought the PC, and make it easy for then to switch operators at a later date if they want.
  • Put the SIM slot in an easily accessible place, and make sure it is fully "hot-swappable".
  • Beat up the operators until they supply SIM-only data plans, ideally both prepay and subscription. Make sure that these are true 'plug and play', SIMs that contain all the necessary driver software, special applications and so on. Ideally, when the SIM is removed, it will remove all traces of operator-specific software from the PC, with the possible exception of some harmless preferences.
  • If operators are insisting on subscription plans, beat them up until they stop charging an international roaming premium (or make sure it's really small). And beat them up some more to make sure they don't have ridiculous application-layer policies enforced in the networks (obviously with exceptions for security reasons, possibly content filtering etc etc). People don't take kindly to others telling them what apps they can & can't run on their PCs.
  • Advocate the sale of prepaid 3G SIM cards at airports, hotels and other places that travellers visit. The nice thing about laptops is that they don't need a consistent phone number as people are unlikely to want to accept inbound calls (or can do it after signing in via the web on a separate software client anyway). This is why roaming fees are ridiculous - you should be able to buy 'local' access. If I use WiFi, or go to an Internet cafe, it doesn't route all the traffic back via my UK ISP and charge me roaming rates. There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to access your Vodafone or Orange account (and voicemails, SMS etc) securely, even when connected via a 3rd-party's access network.
  • Make sure the embedded connection manager in this PC is user-friendly and user-centric. Allow people to set up their own connection policies in sensible ways. If you think the standard Windows CM isn't good enough, get a custom one pre-installed. Beat up the network operators to use this embedded CM as a core (with temporary branding while their SIM is in the PC, perhaps), rather than trying to install a separate one. When their SIM is removed, make sure that the embedded CM is left in a pristine 'vanilla' condition.
  • Disabuse any operators of the notion that they have to test each individual model of laptop in the labs. Get the module pre-certified and usable in any PC. If there are other bits like antennas that are external to the module, either get them pre-tested too, or tell the operators they need to relax about them. Or set up some centralised industry testing facilities. This is the prime reason why USB modems are so popular - they can be tested just once, and then work on all laptops. Putting 200 sorts of laptops per year through 200 operators' testing labs is clearly nonsensical.
  • Make sure the modem module is easily upgradeable (software and/or hardware). If people buy a laptop now and expect it to last for 4 years, they'll be upset when they can't get HSPA+ or LTE (or WiMAX!) or whatever else is the best/fastest/cheapest/coolest in 2011. If you don't, you can bet they'll just stop using the embedded module and get a cheap external modem instead.
  • Consider making it dual-mode HSPA and CDMA-capable. And maybe TD-SCDMA and/or WiMAX too.
  • Put as many frequency bands in it as possible.
  • Make sure that the HSPA bit plays very, very nicely with WiFi in the laptop. Don't be stupid about this - in certain circumstances, people will ALWAYS prefer WiFi. When a business user is sitting at his desk in his office building, connecting to his Oracle database in his basement, surrounded by his high-spec 802.11n WiFi (and fixed ethernet for that matter) tromboning his data connection via the cellular network is very silly for all concerned. Make sure that the connection manager enables WiFi (even unsecured) to pre-empt HSPA if that's what the customer chooses. And don't even think about putting in unreasonable default settings for HSPA/WiFi preference when it ships.
  • Make the laptop conscious of when it's connected to a femtocell rather than the macro network. It may need to behave a bit differently.

If all of these occur, then maybe just maybe usage of embedded 3G in laptops might take off. There's still time to exploit some of the more egregious pricing strategies of the WiFi hotspot firms and substitute usage. But don't focus on WiFi as a competitor.... the main one is the 3G USB modem. At the moment, the business model is much more attractive to the end user as it decouples the laptop purchase from their access expenditure. That's how people buy their computers & broadband - I'd suggest you work with this rather than against it. It's probably easier to change the attitudes of a 100 operators than a 100 million consumers.

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