Now that the entire world is pretty sure Apple is going to announce its tablet computer -- iPad is a pretty good guess at the name -- at a major press event next week, the rumor mill has moved on to the question of who the wireless carrier will be. Will Apple enter into another exclusive arrangement, the way it did with AT&T for the iPhone?
The betting money this week says no. Reports have Apple cutting deals with both AT&T and Verizon Wireless to provide connectivity for the device.
Fox News reported that the carrier arrangements won't be finalized in time for the gala announcement, but Apple is negotiating with both carriers. Fox's sources say Apple will actually produce two version of its tablet computer -- one that works with AT&T's GSM network and one that operates with Verizon's CDMA technology.
How Much Appetite for a Data Plan?
AT&T may offer connectivity via HSDPA, which AT&T says ""effectively doubles the speed of our 3G network." Since AT&T has been Apple's partner from the launch of the iPhone, it would be surprising if it doesn't offer the tablet computer.
But given the many complaints from iPhone users about AT&T's 3G network -- and the fact that Apple operates without exclusive deals in most of the world -- it's also not surprising that Apple would be feeling out Verizon. According to Verizon spokesperson Jeff Nelson, the carrier is considering tiered pricing for tablets, although he didn't mention Apple's tablet by name.
Fox said the carriers will offer data plans similar to the ones offered for netbooks and laptop connectivity. The consensus view, however, is that Apple won't announce either carrier or pricing at the launch event, although it surely will come with Wi-Fi.
It's not even clear if consumers will be interested in yet another data plan, Tim Bajarin, principal strategist with Creative Strategies, said in an e-mail. "One of the big questions about this new product is whether customers will want to pay an additional $39-$50 for a data plan, given the fact that they mostly likely have one with their smartphone already," he wrote.
The Power of Hype
Greg Sterling, principal analyst with Sterling Market Research, agreed. "All these monthly pricing plans start to become pretty oppressive. People are not going to want to have three separate ISP plans," he said in a telephone interview.
On the other hand, Sterling said, it's predictable that "somebody's going to provide a subsidized version of the device." It's unclear whether two separate devices would have to be created to support the different network technologies or if a "world" device is possible.
Sterling offered an intriguing possibility that smartphones and netbooks could converge in the new device. "Depending upon how small this is, and I suspect portability will be one of its features, you could sign up with Verizon and download Skype and use it as a phone. ... It will be interesting to see what it evolves into."
Just a few weeks ago, many analysts were scratching their heads over how much consumer interest there might be for an essentially luxury device -- neither a productive computer nor a connected smartphone. How much would people want a souped-up Kindle?
There has been so much hype about next week's announcement -- and it's permeated the mainstream media so far -- that "I can't believe they will deliver a device that matches up to the hype. It will be interesting to see what they actually deliver," Sterling said.
With so much prerelease buzz, "I'm surprised by how much pent-up demand there is. The Kindle, the iPhone, the iPod touch have really paved the way for the 'Jesus' device," Sterling said.