Remember the “connected PC,” that always-tethered-to-the-Internet machine that would put the web at our fingertips, 24-7? It was a noble—if failed—PC industry initiative long before the age of smartphones and tablets.
But now it looks like always-connected machines are finally on the horizon: Upcoming PCs based on Intel’s “Skylake” platform will come with built-in LTE support, connecting them to the Internet even when you’re nowhere near a Wi-Fi connection or hot Ethernet cable.
Intel will begin circulating Skylake hardware reference designs to PC makers like Asus, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo in early 2015. And even the wireless industry is doing its part by working on data plans that support new types of LTE devices. It’s an important development for the wireless carriers, as more and more public Wi-Fi connections are becoming available, providing alternatives to LTE in crowded areas.
The upshot? Well, you may not see 50 companies join hands and declare that the age of the “connected PC” is finally, truly at hand. But, rest assured, the pieces are coming together.
Intel: Wire-free PCs need LTE
Don’t be misled: Intel needs this. Intel ships about 85 percent of all X86 chips each year, but its bread-and-butter device platform, the PC, is steadily declining in popularity. Intel needs a reason for customers to keep buying PCs, and it thinks it’s found one: the “wire-free” PC.
Every year or so, Intel ships a new microprocessor—one that’s faster, more powerful, and more power-efficient than the generation before it. This time around, that chip is code-named Skylake. By itself, Skylake should offer even greater performance and power-efficiency than the delayed Broadwell chips, which Intel has just begun to ship.
But as attention turns to tablets and phones, fewer and fewer customers care about “speeds and feeds.” Enter Intel’s wire-free promise, which says you’ll finally be able to leave all those annoying cords at home. If the plan bears out, you’ll ditch your PC’s charging cord, USB cables, the works.
Instead of physical cables, you’ll use 802.11ac for connecting PCs to indoor Wi-Fi networks; WiGig for connecting PCs wirelessly to displays; wireless charging mats and tables to eliminate power cords; and, of course, LTE data connections for Internet access while on the road.
“If you want to have the best of a tablet and the best of a PC, we think you need integrated LTE,” said Kirk Skaugen, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s PC Client Group.
Shared data plans will be key
For Intel’s vision to pan out, it will need the wireless carriers to modernize their pricing structures. Surfing the web on a train, plane or ferry sounds fantastic, but quickly loses its appeal if you have to pay for an entirely separate data plan. Lenovo, for example, added an LTE option to its ThinkPad X1 Carbon as early as 2012—but charged $1.99 per month for just 30 minutes of service. That just seems bizarre and misguided today.
And let’s not forget Google, which dabbled in connected computing with Chromebooks that included a 3G SIM option. Some of the appeal of the fantastically pricey $1,500 Chromebook Pixel was its bundled-in two years of Verizon LTE data, capped at 100MB per month. Unfortunately, however, Verizon later broke its promise and stopped providing free LTE after one year. Wireless carriers also tried selling their own tablets and PCs with dedicated data plans. It was a strategy that fizzled.
But now the carriers are taking a more enlightened perspective. Verizon offers the Shared Everything Plan, which puts phones, tablets, and other devices under a single plan. AT&T’s Mobile Share Plan does the same. Carriers are beginning to embrace the concept that a user may carry a number of “twinned” devices, all keyed to a certain data plan or phone number.
The kicker, according to David Garver, vice president of business development for emerging devices at AT&T Mobility, is that “we don’t see much cannibalization to the core business that is cell phones.” In other words, those shared data plans aren’t killing the carriers’ bread-and-butter smartphone business.
Using Wi-Fi to fill the gaps
Some carriers have zigged where the others have zagged. T-Mobile, for example, prioritized Wi-Fi at its recent Un-leashed event—the carrier’s supported phones and tablets can liberally use Wi-Fi to place calls and transmit text messages. T-Mobile also announced a partnership with Gogo that allows phones and tablets to place calls on planes, where cellular signals are blocked.
T-Mobile’s strength, though, is its free wireless tethering, which allows notebook PC owners to connect wirelessly to T-Mobile phones—essentially eliminating the need for a dedicated wireless chip inside of a notebook. Verizon and AT&T also offer free connections to a nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots, adding additional connectivity options in airports and train stations, where cellular signals may be congested. And Comcast is doing it, too. With enough freely available hotspots, you can almost get along without a cellular connection.
Finally, there’s Microsoft, which is rushing headlong toward Windows 9. One of the nicer features in Windows Phone 8.1 is Wi-Fi Sense, a service that automatically logs you into hotspots you’ve engaged with before, even if they require some form of acknowledgement. Recent leaks have shown that Wi-Fi Sense is headed to Windows 9, which means that any hotspots you’ve discovered with your Windows Phone should automatically transfer to your PC.
Of course, no one has stood on the stage of a tech event keynote and declared 2015 the year of ubiquitous wireless connectivity for PCs. Some of you, including me, will likely balk at paying extra for a wireless SIM card for a PC or tablet, especially if you can simply connect those devices to your cell phone, and ride its data connection.
Nonetheless, we can slowly see a new connected future take shape. It may not happen overnight, but one day soon you’ll be able to access your cloud storage or cat videos virtually anywhere.
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As PCWorld's senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.