Shared data plans will be key
For Intel's vision to pan out, it will need the wireless carriers to modernize their pricing structures. Surfing the web on a train, plane or ferry sounds fantastic, but quickly loses its appeal if you have to pay for an entirely separate data plan. Lenovo, for example, added an LTE option to its ThinkPad X1 Carbon as early as 2012--but charged $1.99 per month for just 30 minutes of service. That just seems bizarre and misguided today.
While the highlight of Google's Chromebook Pixel might have been its spectacular screen, its most useful feature was the free LTE data plan from Verizon.
And let's not forget Google, which dabbled in connected computing with Chromebooks that included a 3G SIM option. Some of the appeal of the fantastically pricey $1,500 Chromebook Pixel was its bundled-in two years of Verizon LTE data, capped at 100MB per month. Unfortunately, however, Verizon later broke its promise and stopped providing free LTE after one year. Wireless carriers also tried selling their own tablets and PCs with dedicated data plans. It was a strategy that fizzled.
But now the carriers are taking a more enlightened perspective. Verizon offers the Shared Everything Plan, which puts phones, tablets, and other devices under a single plan. AT&T's Mobile Share Plan does the same. Carriers are beginning to embrace the concept that a user may carry a number of "twinned" devices, all keyed to a certain data plan or phone number.
The kicker, according to David Garver, vice president of business development for emerging devices at AT&T Mobility, is that "we don't see much cannibalization to the core business that is cell phones." In other words, those shared data plans aren't killing the carriers' bread-and-butter smartphone business.
Using Wi-Fi to fill the gaps
Some carriers have zigged where the others have zagged. T-Mobile, for example, prioritized Wi-Fi at its recent Un-leashed event--the carrier's supported phones and tablets can liberally use Wi-Fi to place calls and transmit text messages. T-Mobile also announced a partnership with Gogo that allows phones and tablets to place calls on planes, where cellular signals are blocked.
T-Mobile's strength, though, is its free wireless tethering, which allows notebook PC owners to connect wirelessly to T-Mobile phones--essentially eliminating the need for a dedicated wireless chip inside of a notebook. Verizon and AT&T also offer free connections to a nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots, adding additional connectivity options in airports and train stations, where cellular signals may be congested. And Comcast is doing it, too. With enough freely available hotspots, you can almost get along without a cellular connection.
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