Verizon Wireless kicks off sales of Apple iPads -- either bundled with a MiFi mobile hot spots or sold as Wi-Fi-only units -- in 2,000 stores on Thursday.
Also tomorrow, AT&T will offer iPad Wi-Fi + 3G models in 2,200 stores with data plans starting at $14.99 a month.
Verizon's in-store sales plan has been highly anticipated because Apple's iPad currently works exclusively with AT&T's cellular network, though the iPad is capable of mobile hot spot access via other carriers' networks.
Some critics of AT&T's service for the iPhone and iPad could find Verizon's network superior to AT&T's even if they need to use a MiFi hot spot device, analysts said.
Verizon is offering three versions of the iPad Wi-Fi with MiFi: a 16GB model for $629.99, a 32GB version for $729.99, and a 64GB model for $829.99. That's 99 cents more for each unit than the price for an iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G sold by Apple. AT&T's network service is still sold separately.
Verizon said it will sell the iPads without requiring the purchase of long-term service contracts; that's similar to its sales plan for the Samsung Galaxy Tab. The data plans for both start at 1GB of data for $20 a month.
When Verizon first announced plans to sell the iPad, AT&T quickly responded by announcing plans to sell the devices at a discount to business customers through its direct business sales channel. AT&T did not reveal details on the discount.
Verizon today would not discuss business discounts on iPads, but it said it expects to sell plenty of iPads to businesses of all sizes through its direct sales channel as well as through its stores. "Our store representatives are trained to work with small business customers to provide advice and information," a spokeswoman said.
Analysts generally agree that the in-store sales of iPads will help further business and consumer interest in iPads and tablets in general.
Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research, today noted in a blog that the iPad has "kicked off an arms race" with other "smart mobile devices," including the Galaxy, Cisco's Cius, Dell's Streak, RIM's PlayBook and HP's Windows 7 Tablet.
Schadler reported that he has discussed the iPad with some 200 IT leaders and "the interest is incredible."
Schadler said Verizon's in-store sales will be important to businesses, especially because many people are bringing the devices into the workplace on their own. "IPad is fine with Wi-Fi, but much more interesting with 3G, and while you can't get that today with Verizon, you can get one step closer with MiFi," he said.
IT shops will especially like having the choice of AT&T's or Verizon's network, Schadler added. "Big companies hate getting locked in," he said. "Having iPhone run only on AT&T is really a big problem for IT shops."
Schadler issued a longer report in which he noted three top uses of tablets: to someday replace the laptops used by mobile professionals and executives; to replace clipboards and other paper-based tablets used by field professionals such as construction managers, inspectors and insurance brokers; and to make mobile computing more viable for doctors, who could use tablets to write prescriptions or access patient records.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.