The PC industry is in the doldrums. Shipments continue to decline, and consumers and business buyers are holding on to their existing hardware for increasingly long periods of time. Fast new processors haven’t caused them to upgrade. Nor have thinner, touch-enabled form factors. And new operating systems no longer move the needle. So what’s it going to take? As a frequent business traveler, I can tell you this: the single most important feature that I want in my next notebook is one that I simply cannot get on even the best products in the world: a cellular radio. It’s 2016, and it is high time that my most powerful, most productive, and most expensive mobile computing device got its own full-time cellular connection.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: Yes, I know I can use a mobile hotspot. Yes, I know I can tether my notebook to my phone. Yes, I know WiFi is widely available. And yes, I know that I’m going to have to pay my mobile carrier for yet another connection.
I have a mobile hotspot. It’s pretty great, except the roughly 50% of the time it is dead because I left it turned on the last time I used it. Or, worse, it’s not in my bag because I left it charging on my desk. In a pinch, I often tether to my phone. And it works ok most of the time. But invariably, when I’m in a hurry, I find myself turning the phone hotspot on and off, or turning my notebook’s WiFi on and off desperately trying to get my notebook to talk to the phone that is sitting three inches to its right. Best case, I eventually connect and then proceed to run down my phone battery.
Connecting to WiFi is even more hit or miss. Public hotspots are increasingly plentiful but are consistently inconsistent in terms of stability and speed. More frustrating still is the semi-private WiFi in every corporate conference room I’ve ever set foot. I shudder to think about how much time and money we, as a population, waste while people in conference rooms “try to get connected.” That’s why I’d gladly pay my carrier an extra $10-$20 per month to access my existing shared data plan. And I’d also happily pay the $50-$100 it would cost the vendor for the radio. It would pay for itself in a matter of months.
Several years ago I got my first cellular-connected tablet. It has clearly spoiled me. I can’t imagine ever having a non-cellular tablet again. No matter where I go, I’m always connected. And I’m not alone: In 2015 about 36% of tablets WW shipped with cellular connectivity. About one-third of Apple’s iPads ship with cellular connectivity and it charges an extra $130 for the feature! Today you can find cellular-enabled tablets for less than $200. So why can’t I get that feature in my high-end notebook?
I’ve made this argument to a wide range of companies within the PC ecosystem. From silicon makers to hardware vendors, and few disagree with my sentiment. But nobody wants to go first in a big, bold way. Some of the PC vendors offer a few commercial-focused models with a cellular modem as an option, but none has rolled it out as an add-on to their flagship products. I’m not suggesting that it should show up in every sub $300 PC that ships into the market. But let’s make it an option on vendor’s top-of-the-line products.
Apple’s MacBook is its thinnest, most mobile-focused notebook to date. But there’s no cellular option. Dell’s XPS-13 is one of the finest Windows notebooks on the market, yet there’s no cellular option. Microsoft’s Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 detachable products are clearly targeting mobile professionals willing to pay top dollar for their hardware, and yet there’s no cellular option. Same for Lenovo’s Yoga 900. And HP’s Spectre. And the list goes on and on.
I guarantee that once companies realize the productivity benefits of a giving their most mobile employees connected notebooks, they’ll start buying more of them. And that’s before you consider the potential security benefits of never having to connect to a strange WiFi access point. Or the notable cost savings of that employee never having to pay for connectivity in a hotel again.
I get it. Adding cellular brings a wide range of technical and regulatory hassles. It costs money to design in the radio and then pay for the part, and so far the silicon guys haven’t made integrating it a priority. And it means working with a wide range of carriers all over the world. But it is time that the industry bites the bullet and moves this forward. Everyone is trying to figure out what buyers want, but many users just don’t know yet that this is what they want. Give them the option to find out. Let’s get the ball rolling on this now, so that when 5G arrives every PC will ship with that next-generation connectivity as a standard feature.