The well-connected laptop

Wi-Fi has become a standard feature on laptop PCs since Intel introduced its Centrino chipset. About 80 percent of the more than 50 million laptops expected to ship worldwide this year will include built-in Wi-Fi support.

As welcome as Wi-Fi connectivity is, it has three major weaknesses. Wi-Fi service is available only at isolated hot spots, found mainly in hotels, airports and coffee shops. Because Wi-Fi uses a shared connection, throughput can plummet at well-attended conferences. And Wi-Fi service lacks the seamless roaming that mobile phone users have come to expect.

Now that laptop users have been given a taste of wireless, it's likely that users will demand ubiquitous access, and the technologies to make it happen are finally coming together. But there are some important technical and business challenges the industry must address.

Properly constructed, 3G mobile phone networks provide access at DSL speeds anywhere you can use your mobile phone. Today, business users can access 3G wireless services from their laptops using adapter cards from companies such as Novatel and Kyocera.

Expect to see laptops with built-in 3G wireless in addition to Wi-Fi in 2006. Over time, laptops will integrate additional wireless services, such as 3G multicasting (for downloading multimedia content), WiMax and GPS for location-based services.

If that sounds too optimistic, note there are already mobile phones that support multiple frequency bands and multiple standards. Several manufacturers are even developing handsets integrating VoIP over Wi-Fi, also known as Vo-Fi.

The business challenges of integrating multiple wireless technologies in laptop PCs are more daunting than the technical challenges. There is no technical reason why 3G cellular and WiMAX can't be added to chipsets supporting Wi-Fi. It's the relationships between laptop manufacturers and 3G operators that could get complicated.

The integration of Wi-Fi in laptop PCs has opened the floodgates to personal broadband. The technical hurdles have fallen; the business hurdles are next. But the last 20 percent of product development -- the look and feel, packaging and third-party relationships -- is often the hardest part.

Ira Brodsky is president of Datacomm Research

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