Expo: Will MacBooks follow iPhone to 3G?

Banners hanging at Macworld Expo on Monday read, “2008: There’s something in the air,” suggesting wireless news to come in CEO Steve Jobs’ keynote Tuesday morning.

Faster cellular service for the iPhone is already on its way later this year, AT&T’s top executive reportedly said in November, but Apple could go beyond that plan and extend high-speed wireless WAN (wide-area network) capability to its MacBook notebooks and even a rumored “ultramobile” computer.

Many consumers have been clamoring for more speed on the iPhone since it was announced a year ago with support only for Wi-Fi and EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution), a version of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) that generally runs below 200M bps (bits per second). U.S. iPhone carrier AT&T Wireless and other operators around the world already have a set of faster systems called HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access) that can deliver more than 1M bps (bits per second).

At the same time, wide-area wireless has been moving into PC notebooks and smaller PC-like devices. The big notebook vendors, including Dell, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard, have rolled out products with built-in 3G. And the Asustek Computer Eee PC and some other small UMPC (ultramobile PC) devices are slated to ship with WiMax.

A banner at Macworld Expo, which opened Monday in San Francisco, hints that CEO Steve Jobs may announce wireless news at his keynote Tuesday morning. (Photo by Stephen Lawson)

Apple hasn’t made the leap. Mobile Mac owners can hook up to Wi-Fi hotspots but have to buy dongles or other add-on devices from third parties to get fast wireless elsewhere. Offering a built-in 3G card would give MacBook users access to broadband in far more locations.

However, that leap would take Apple into a market that hasn’t attracted a large percentage of notebook buyers, analysts said.

At least in the U.S., 3G radios are associated with a particular carrier and usually sold along with two-year data contracts. Users keep notebooks longer than they do phones and don’t want to lock them down to a particular carrier, said Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin. In addition, many notebooks are purchased by enterprise IT departments, which demand more flexibility, Golvin said. He doesn’t expect to see another iPhone phenomenon.

“I don’t think that laptop users would be as interested in aligning themselves formally with one particular carrier,” Golvin said. One alternative would be to build in a chip that could handle more than one carrier and 3G technology, he added.

Avi Greengart of Current Analysis believes Apple’s proven ability to streamline could change the picture.

“They have not been in the forefront of 3G on notebooks. However, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they came out with a simplified offering that just made a lot of sense and became the catalyst, as the iPhone is,” Greengart said. Apple simplified the iPhone experience for customers by sticking with one carrier and letting subscribers sign up with AT&T through iTunes.

Apple could also jump-start the market by offering an alternative to the expensive monthly service model that carriers typically use, said Gartner’s Ken Dulaney. Most consumers don’t travel frequently enough to justify spending $30 or more per month for cellular service on their notebooks, but they might be willing to buy a system with built-in 3G and pay for service as they need it, he said. Verizon has a little-known offering like this, in which users can pay $15 for 24 hours of service, according to spokesman Jeffrey Nelson.

Because of its greater mobility, a rumored Mac that’s smaller than a notebook but bigger than the iPhone would be an ideal candidate for 3G. If the company unveils it on Tuesday, that product could lead Apple’s new wireless charge.

But that “something in the air” could be a number of other things, too, analysts said. Apple is expected to make its SDK (software development kit) for third-party applications on the iPhone available next month, Greengart said. And the iPhone could gain GPS (Global Positioning System) capability, or some iPods could get Wi-Fi, he said. As always, it’s all speculation until Jobs speaks.

Macworld will feature live coverage of Tuesday’s keynote.

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