The Next Generation

Upcoming advances in 3G technology are promising power executives and mobile road warriors better access to email, the Internet and business applications anytime and anywhere at blistering speeds of 1.6Mbps.

The ability to integrate 3G connectivity into notebooks has also caught the eye of laptop manufacturers, who are now investigating the best ways to take the technology to market.

Gartner hardware analyst, Andy Woo, said 3G had matured from the card phase into the world of embedded components.

"We're moving from LAN embedded to WAN-enabled notebooks," he said. "The devices are becoming more integrated."

3G offers simultaneous voice and data services, high-speed Internet access and high quality video telephony. With built-in networking functionality, users can send and receive email, download attachments, surf the Internet and access corporate databases over mobile networks without having to buy data cards.

Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and Hutchison all run 3G networks capable of transferring data at up to 384Kbps.

Lenovo claims to be the first out of the gates with 3G embedded laptops, recently striking a deal with Vodafone to deliver mobile broadband connectivity on selected ThinkPad T60 and X60 notebooks.

Roaming Connectivity

The integration of 3G broadband with existing Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity, when managed by Lenovo's Access Connections software, allowed roaming between wired and wireless networks, senior ThinkPad product manager, Frank Luburic, said.

"3G customers will be able to get high-speed mobile data networking without the need to use external mobile data cards," he said.

When Vodafone incorporates High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) into its network later this year, ThinkPad customers will be able to upgrade notebook firmware to take advantage of the new higher speed mobile broadband solution, which will boost current 3G download speeds by approximately four times to around 1.6Mbps.

However, Gartner's Woo said he was not convinced the technology would have a big following.

"Its primary role at the moment is on mobile phones rather than notebook," he said.

"There needs to be a compelling reason to purchase it. And while users may get greater coverage, connection is still a problem. Pricing is an issue as well," he said.

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Market nous

Lenovo's Luburic said the integrated 3G rollout could be a big deal for partners, provided it targeted the right customers.

He said the sweet spot was in the high-end SMB and government markets.

"These customers want long lifecycle product, and require reliability and durability as top attributes," Luburic said.

Looking ahead, Lenovo plans to include embedded 3G into its value range, the R and Z series, later this year.

"The embedded aspect of 3G is significant in that there is no need to manage a second piece of hardware. This boosts safety, reliability and performance," he said.

Fujitsu PC technical manager, David Niu, suggested embedded 3G was useful for road warriors who required a truly mobile Internet experience. The vendor will shortly launch its first 3G product, the lightweight LifeBook Q2010. It is currently in talks with all major telcos to supply telephony services. Corporate players are the target market.

"In the past, users had to rely on PDAs, mobile phones, and a combination of different hardware devices to achieve true mobility. Now they will only need one device," Niu said.

Fujitsu also plans to launch 3G on a few Tablet PCs, including the T4210 and P1510 convertible range.

Another top benefit was that connectivity is widely available, extending international roaming capability, Niu said.

Asked whether 3G will replace competing wireless broadband standard, WiMax, Niu said it could be considered a complementary technology.

"WiMax offers wide coverage, but on the road it's limited. The 3G mobile network coverage area is greater," he said.

Vodafone Australia national channel manager, Hastings Singh, said 3G's edge over WiMax was its clear upgrade path.

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Unified Standards

"Users know what they can expect. There's still a lot to be defined with WiMax in terms of unified standards," he said.

While vendors are fine tuning the strategies and singing the 3G song, Gartner's Woo argued more telco players needed to become involved. Lenovo has already struck deals with Vodafone in terms of embedded 3G and with Telstra for external 3G cards in a bid to bring the technology to the business market. The others will have to follow suit, Woo said.

"For mainstream deployment, the telco has a role to play," he said. "The main reason for 3G is for content, and the PC is part of the extended platform. And while PCs are a different business model, the telco needs to subsidise the hardware costs."

Broadband bundling packages would also need to be offered by telcos as a way of driving uptake.

Market uptake would increase, Woo said, if telcos also started to subsidise the notebooks in the same way they did mobile phone handsets.

Vodafone's Singh said there was a new market opportunity for telco providers in concert with notebook vendors.

While the technology would initially appeal to the high end of the market, he perceived it would also attract SMB players.

"We see this as the next evolution of data connectivity," Vodafone's Singh said. "It addresses the emerging trend of connectivity."

The embedded aspect of the hardware meant better performance and fewer compatibility issues, he said.

Vodafone has a large and active IT channel. Its latest offering would present new opportunities for in terms of hardware margin and connection fees, he said.

Vodafone's data partners include Corporate Express, ComputerCorp, ASI Solutions, The Somerville Group, Harbour IT and WJ Moncrieff.

Once customers choose a data bundle, activate an account via a connection manager and meet the standard credit test requirements, mobile broadband would be available each time customers turned on their laptops in the same way they connected in the office or at home, Singh said.

HP, meanwhile, was also fine-tuning its 3G strategy, planning to roll out an embedded solution at the end of the year, business development manager, commercial notebooks, Jerel Chong, said.

"We are doing it later, rather than sooner, in order to offer a more future-proof solution, which will take advantage of next generation 3G and faster networks," he said.

"With 3G, we are heading towards that always connected model. And connectivity-wise, 3G is one of the better solutions out there."

HP is in talks with telcos, trying to gauge interest.

"It's a new area for us, so we're trying to sort out risks," Chong said.

"It's all exciting for the channel. They get a product at a higher margin, and will find the bundles solutions good for business."

HP's inaugural target market would be larger organisations with workers who need to be connected all the time.

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Toshiba product marketing manager, Justin White, said the company was getting set to launch 3G notebooks in Q4. To date, the Portege M400 model was 3G capable and uses a card. The forthcoming models would have embedded 3G.

The technology would have an impact on the market in that it allows users to work anywhere, anytime, White said.

Like HP, Toshiba is in talks with a number of telcos across the region.

"For resellers, it's another money-spinner," White said. In addition to hardware margins, partners could make money beyond the initial sale by connecting customers to the network, or upgrading mail servers.

On the flipside, Protac International Computers Australia marketing manager, Patrick Cheng, said his company hadn't yet seen much demand for the technology.

"We haven't heard anything from the suppliers about integration. There's still a long way to go, but if there's a market for it, we'd pursue it," he said.

While there is a lot of hype surrounding embedded 3G, Gartner continues to advise users to buy laptops and mobile connectivity separately.

"Certain applications will continue to require handheld devices with integrated 3G connectivity. But for most businesses, add-on cards are a better investment and provide much more flexibility than integrated systems," Gartner said.