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Microsoft aims for £250 3G laptops

Dell, Lenovo & Vodafone back notebook contest

Microsoft and the GSM Association are promoting 3G technology by asking companies to build laptops that connect to the web automatically over mobile phone networks.

They're hosting a contest for companies to design mobile phone-style connectivity into laptops for mainstream users, allowing them to connect to the internet at anytime, anywhere.

The laptops will be aimed at the mass-market consumer segment in the £250 to £500 price range, the GSMA said. The group, a promoter of mobile phone networks and technology, said mobile phone networks offer far greater range than competing wireless technologies.

The hope is that mobile operators will work with laptop PC makers to sell the laptops directly to subscribers in the same way they offer mobile phones today, but the laptop deals would include a mobile broadband internet access plan from the operator, said David O'Byrne, senior project director at GSMA, in a briefing in Macau during the GSMA Mobile Asia Congress.

The technology has existed for some time. It's the same High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) technology inside chipsets installed in smartphones today. The goal is to get these chipsets into more laptop PCs, said Doug Chambers, senior director of terminals and market expansion at GSMA.

Installing chipsets for connecting to mobile phone networks would be similar to the way Intel built Wi-Fi technology into its Centrino chip packages. Wi-Fi is the most popular way for people to access the internet wirelessly on a laptop PC today, but it is limited in its range. Users need to be in close proximity to the Wi-Fi base station they're connected to, whether it be in a coffee shop, airport and other location.

Mobile phone networks have far broader coverage, but mobile broadband technology aimed at laptops is also problematic. Since it's not built into the laptop, users have to take complicated steps to add the capability, which most users don't bother with. Most mobile operators sell wireless cards that fit into a slot on a laptop PC, which are sold with a mobile broadband service plan.

But most people don't want the hassle of figuring out how to use the cards or troubleshooting problems. "People want an out-of-the-box solution," said Ken Pawlak, director of the mobile operator PCs market expansion group at Microsoft.

The Microsoft Windows Vista OS will work with HSDPA-enabled chipsets already, but mobile phone network operators would have to configure the laptops before selling them to users in order to ensure a smooth experience, said Pawlak.

Six notebook PC makers have already expressed interest in the contest, including Dell, Lenovo, Fujitsu-Siemens, Asustek Computer, Twinhead and Vestel Elektronics. A dozen mobile phone network operators are already behind the scheme, the GSMA said, including Orange, Telefonica O2, Turkcell and Vodafone.

The winner of the laptop competition will be showcased at the GSM Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next February, and be promoted to operators.

Microsoft and the GSMA believe laptops with built-in mobile broadband could more than double sales of consumer laptops in the £250 to £500 price range. In a study commissioned by the two, Pyramid Research found that as many as 79.5 million such laptop PCs could be sold next year if mobile broadband were added, far more than current estimates.

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