Qualcomm's new Gobi: A WiMax and Wi-Fi killer?

New embedded laptop module can be software-updated for a variety of carriers

Qualcomm's Gobi, an embedded laptop module allowing for wide-area wireless connectivity, is poised to upset the apple cart, offering alternatives to Wi-Fi and even emerging WiMax.

The next-generation Gobi module will be selling in Dell laptops, and possibly those from other manufacturers, later this year. New capabilities will support multiple cellular networks for the first time, Dell and Qualcomm officials announced today.

Embedded laptop wide-area wireless chips have been criticized In current configurations by Gartner analysts and others, who noted that their technology required sticking with one carrier or technology for the life of a laptop. Many IT managers may want to change carriers before a laptop's full life is realized at three years or more.

Gartner's current advice is not to use existing embedded modules, but the advice could change with the advent of the new Gobi later this year, according to Ken Dulaney, an analyst at the firm. The new Gobi is "a tremendous chip in terms of its versatility and ability to be a stable asset in a laptop lasting for three years or so," he said.

Dell said it would provide the built-in Gobi in Latitude, Dell Precision and other consumer laptops later this year. In one example, Dell said US-based travelers who connect their laptops via EV-DO carriers such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel will be able to use the new Gobi to connect in Europe via HSPA carrier networks such as Vodafone. Today, customers wanting to connect to both types of networks must use two different mobile broadband cards, Dell said.

The new Gobi technology is software-configurable, and allows a user to switch between network carriers. Dulaney said Gartner has recommended separate laptop cards instead of embedded technology to aid users who wish to swap them out.

At CTIA Wireless 2008, T-Mobile International also said it has certified the new Gobi technology to "free notebook users to connect via leading 3G networks virtually anywhere."

Greg Raleigh, vice president of product management for Qualcomm CDMA technologies, said that he expects more laptop makers and carriers to endorse the new Gobi approach in coming months.

With Gobi, users can be untethered from Wi-Fi hot spots, Raleigh said.

Dulaney predicted that carriers would begin offering new wide-area wireless data pricing plans so that users pay as they go, much as they do for Wi-Fi. "It may be the end of the year before we see all these offers in concrete," he said.

Gobi could be a real concern for WiMax developers who are also offering high-speed wireless access to mobile users, Dulaney added.

"In part, this technology's being built to defeat WiMax, but really they are trying to include WAN wireless in the same category as Wi-Fi," he said.

And service providers might not be the only ones to find profit models disrupted by Gobi, notes Dulaney. Even if the new Gobi raises the price of a laptop by US$100, a user traveling just twice a year for several days would pay for the cost by not having to pay hotel Wi-Fi connection fees of US$10 to $14 a night.

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