Apple, HTC and Android for Wimax in 2009

Caroline Gabriel, Rethink Research
12 Nov 2008

Wimax's major first phase impact may be on bringing fixed access to underserved communities, but it hits the headlines when it proves a trailblazer for advanced mobile broadband services. These, as chief cheerleader Sprint Xohm well knows, will not only rely on powerful networks but on a wide range of devices, and these need to achieve the difficult triple act of being desirable to consumers, optimized for popular broadband or media applications, and well differentiated from 3G offerings.

While the initial Xohm launch - like all mobile broadband services - will be driven primarily by embedded or USB laptop usage, it needs to put real gadgets behind its devices message in order to sustain interest and momentum. Its first weapon will be the Wimax version of the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet, which could be in users' hands as early as next month. And on the horizon for 2009, we may see products from the two brands that are currently proving the big marketing hitters for the US cellcos - Apple and Google Android.

Apple for WiBro‾

Hopes for a Wimax Apple device - initially likely to be a MacBook laptop and/or iPod rather than a full iPhone - are raised by reports that KT, the other major operator rolling out Wimax-based mobile broadband, will soon have Apple products for its network, based on its own 802.16e implementation, WiBro. KT, which (like most east Asian operators) takes a significant role in the development and design of the devices for its networks, has signed a MoU with Apple to work together on mobile broadband enabled products.

These would initially be for the current WiBro network, but since this will be upgraded to fully standard Wave 2 Mobile Wimax, as used by Xohm, as it expands, it should be a small step for Apple to create standards-based gadgets. WiBro would initially be embedded in lightweight MacBook laptops, reinforcing the notion that Apple is looking to push web optimized 'netbooks' through new operator channels, as its PC rivals are doing. KT and Apple would sell WiBro MacBooks bundled with broadband services through both companies' outlets.

While this would break the dominance of Windows PCs, PDAs and smartphones on the WiBro network, appealing to a new group of users - especially younger, media-oriented consumers - it also shows KT following the traditional cellco model of subsidizing devices in order to tie in customers and lure subscribers to high-end data and broadband plans. Xohm has been vocal in supporting the role of Wimax in breaking that model and enabling operators, through the IP economics of the new standard, to support open access from any user device, and to move away from subsidies.

Apple is also looking to put Wimax into the iPod media player, as it has already done with Wi-Fi, and this could pave the way for a future iPhone. If the Apple brand retains its undoubted pulling power in the US for the next couple of years, such gadgets could be significant boosts to uptake of Xohm and Clearwire services, and could accelerate the extension of usage patterns beyond the laptop to media and consumer products.

However, until open access really is the norm across 3G networks - and this is unlikely, beyond the highest end of the power web user market, for at least five years - Clearwire would find itself having to offer significantly differentiated services and/or fixed/mobile broadband tariffs, in order to attract customers to an unsubsidized Apple product, that might be offered on 3G networks for a very low upfront price.

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