Hyperconnectivity here we come

All your gadgets want Internet access, but will carriers screw up the pricing?

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs told an interviewer at Macworld this week that Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle e-book reader will fail. His shocking reason?: "People don't read anymore."

That's a harsh thing to say to a journalist who writes for a living, but it's just Jobs' way of being polite -- to Amazon. If he wanted to be rude, Jobs would have commented on the quality of the Kindle as a consumer electronics gadget. He would have said that the UI is unusable, the arrangement and functionality of hardware buttons disastrous, and the design philosophy incomprehensible. Instead, he decided to be nice and tells the world's largest bookseller that the Kindle will fail because "people don't read."

Apple's designers are probably pointing and laughing at Amazon's first pathetic attempt at consumer electronics design. But there's one aspect of the Kindle that I'm sure Jobs knows is visionary and prescient: its Internet access.

Amazon's wireless beats Apple's in two ways. First, Amazon chose mobile broadband -- specifically Sprint Nextel Corp.'s 3G EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized) network -- rather than Wi-Fi. Second, Amazon's pricing model is perfect from an end user's point of view: It's fast, free, unlimited and perpetual. Apple's iPhone offers mobile broadband, but it's slower and far more expensive than the Kindle, plus Wi-Fi. The iPod Touch features just Wi-Fi. I predict that the iPod Touch will get mobile broadband also within the next two years, as will other media players, digital cameras, GPS devices and other consumer electronics toys.

The falling cost of providing both the hardware and the bandwidth for mobile broadband will drive this trend, as will consumer demand and the need for consumer electronics companies to differentiate themselves.

When all our gadgets can connect to the Internet from just about anywhere, we'll enter a sublime state of grace known as "hyperconnectivity."

The addition of mobile broadband to gadgets gives us the convenience of bypassing our PCs and going straight to the Net for data and content. It gives us instant gratification and extends both the usefulness and pleasure of using the devices. Here are just some of the device types that will soon get connected:

Media players

Like the Kindle, media players enable the enjoyment of content purchased online. South Korea's Cowon unveiled its HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access)-connected Q5 media player at last year's Consumer Electronics Show. When Apple and the other media player companies catch up, they'll make more money by enabling people to buy more content in more places. With mobile broadband, teenagers will be able to buy music while they're at school or the mall, and won't have to wait until they're back home. This trend will accelerate YouTube video sharing. That's what people want: iPod Touch gadgets that connect from anywhere.

Digital cameras and camcorders

Camera phones are popular because people love taking pictures, then sharing them instantly. The only problem with camera phones is the low quality of the pictures. Samsung introduced its awesome HSDPA-connected VLUU i70 digital camera at last year's CES. Meanwhile, the LG Viewty is one of the hottest camera phones ever sold in Europe (it's not available in the U.S., but in Europe it outsells the iPhone). I think I know why. The Viewty is essentially a high-quality digital camera and digital camcorder with a mobile broadband connection. As an overall consumer electronics device, the iPhone blows it away. But the Viewty has a much better camera than the iPhone, and a much faster Internet connection -- based on HSDPA. That's what people want: a high-quality camera with a fast Internet connection.


The winning model for future GPS devices will be all about mobile broadband. The first major mobile broadband connectable GPS device, the TomTom GO 715, was unveiled last year at CeBIT. GPS gadgets should be constantly downloading map and database updates, weather information and traffic conditions. That's what people want: A GPS device that knows what's going on with the road ahead and is always up to date.

E-book readers

The Kindle killed the market for unconnected e-book readers. It's a foregone conclusion that Sony Corp. and the other companies in this space will connect or die. The instant gratification of buying books directly from anywhere is great. Getting your daily newspaper and weekly magazines wirelessly is even better. Steve Jobs is wrong: People do read. That's what people want: The Library of Congress in our hands.

Mobile game gadgets

Wherever consoles go, mobile gaming follows. Right now, the category is being transformed by online games. Mobile gaming gadgets will get mobile broadband access, and a new genre of game will emerge. That's what people want: Multiplayer Halo in our pockets.


The original mobile device, the automobile, is overdue for an upgrade as well. There's no reason why every car shouldn't have a built-in mobile broadband connection used by in-dash gadgets and the car itself. An in-dash display should show incoming calendar alerts, instant messages and Caller ID information for people who call your phone. The stereo system should get iTunes music. The built-in GPS should use this connection as well. Chrysler LLC announced just this week that it's developing a system for built-in WiMax to be shared by various in-dash gadgets. That's what people want: Connected cars.

Why mobile broadband is better than Wi-Fi

The recent CES show introduced a smattering of devices that stand out from their competitors because they can connect to the Internet. In fact, a product called Eye-Fi, which connects ordinary digital cameras to Wi-Fi networks, won the show's "Last Gadget Standing" contest.

The first consumer Wi-Fi digital camera was introduced at CES three years ago (the Kodak EasyShare-One). Since then, a few more have come out, as have other device types, such as the iPod Touch media player, that used to be unconnected.

While Wi-Fi connectivity is great for laptops and better than nothing for consumer electronics, it's not that much better. A typical USB cable that connects your digital camera, GPS device or other gadgets to an Internet-connected PC might be about 4 feet long. A Wi-Fi connection will realistically extend that reach by about 40 times. It's a longer leash, but it's still a leash.

Mobile broadband, however, eliminates the leash altogether. Although there are many remote areas where the cell phone networks don't reach, most of us spend the vast majority of our time inside these networks. They work in the car, at the airport and just about everywhere we go.

More importantly, however, Wi-Fi networks are problematic to manage because different networks are owned and managed by different people or companies. If you leave your home Wi-Fi network and go to Starbucks, you'll need a T-Mobile account, and entering the username and password with a digital camera is cumbersome. When you go to the airport, you might get access to a Boingo-provided network -- you'll need another account.

A mobile broadband connection, on the other hand, always uses either the bandwidth supplier network or a partner network. The infrastructure is already in place for you to carry your device around and have it connect from anywhere without choosing a network from a list, entering usernames and passwords, or signing up for new accounts.

Why pricing matters

The biggest threat to hyperconnectivity nirvana is carrier cluelessness. All U.S. carriers, with few exceptions, offer confusing, overly complex pricing options for cell phone service, especially for data, which is typically "rationed." You get a certain number of megabytes for the standard rate, then pay some amount for each additional unit of data. Roaming rates are unpredictable. Plus, carriers tend to gouge customers for "extras" like ringtones and music.

A new study by the U.K. consultancy BroadGroup Tariff Services found that the complexity of pricing for cell phone mobile broadband is driving customers away in Europe. The U.S. is no better. And if carriers try to apply cell phone-like pricing to devices like media players, GPS devices and mobile gaming, they'll strangle hyperconnectivity in its crib.

That would be both tragic and ironic, because hyperconnected mobile gadgets is the revenue opportunity of the decade for carriers.

It couldn't be more obvious: The right model is flat-rate, all-you-can-eat pricing for mobile broadband connectivity. No per-megabyte charges, no nights and weekend rates, no restrictions. And the price needs to be low. People will pay $3 to $5 per month for mobile broadband for their digital cameras, especially if the charge is conveniently added to their phone bill. But if carriers gouge, as they tend to do, and charge something like $15 to $20 per month, forget it.

And while I'm lecturing carriers about their own business, I might as well point out another golden opportunity: Selling nonphone devices to drive mobile broadband data use. If you were going to shell out $400 for a new cell phone at the local AT&T Inc. or Verizon Wireless store, would you be willing to pay $650 for the same cell phone plus a new Asus Eee PC that is also connected to the Internet via your new cell phone data plan? Of course you would! It would cost the carriers next to nothing to provide deals like this, and it would provide an incentive for you to upgrade your data plan. Everybody wins. Why aren't the carriers doing this already?

It's time for the entire consumer electronics industry and cell phone carriers to get busy and build the plans, partnerships and devices that will enable the new era of hyperconnectivity.

Fast and easy mobile broadband is so compelling, it's enough to transform even a clunky device like the Amazon Kindle, a must-have gadget that people are falling in love with. Imagine what it will do for your digital camera, GPS, mobile gaming system -- and your car!

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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