Until recently, consumers wanting to take advantage of 4G wireless network speeds didn’t have much choice in devices. Carriers offered laptop cards and USB dongles, but the selection of smart phones and other gadgets was minimal.
This dynamic will change dramatically this year, thanks to a flurry of product launches from mobile operators that are eager to meet increasing consumer demand for fast wireless broadband and draw more revenue from data traffic. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, carriers announced more than 15 new 4G devices, many of them smart phones or tablets.
“Tablets really have a need for speed, a need for always-on connectivity,” Cole Brodman, chief marketing officer at T-Mobile, said at a Thursday event where the carrier announced plans to double the speed of its 4G network.
T-Mobile also unveiled two 4G tablets at CES, the Dell Streak 7 and an LG-manufactured device called the G-Slate. The Dell product will be available in the coming weeks at a cost that “will break the price category” for tablets, Brodman said, though he declined to provide specifics.
The G-Slate runs Google’s Android 3.0, a version of the popular operating system that is designed specifically for tablets. The availability of Android 3.0, which is also known as Honeycomb, opens a new world for application developers who can now create programs optimized for a tablet’s larger screen and immersive multimedia features.
“We were aiming for something that is futuristic but familiar,” Mike Cleron, a Google Android developer, explained during a Thursday demo of the Motorola Mobility’s Xoom tablet.
In Honeycomb, some applications are designed to give consumers functionality like what they’ve seen in sci-fi movies, where people enhance or flip holographic images with their hands. On Google Maps, for example, zooming in to a certain point makes buildings pop up in 3D, and users can rotate the image by pinching the screen with their fingers.
The G-Slate and the Xoom will be the first tablets on the market with the Honeycomb platform. Verizon Wireless will sell the Xoom, along with a 4G version of the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Those two tablets were among the 10 4G devices Verizon introduced at CES, with the full suite of products hitting the market by mid-year.
The Verizon line-up includes four smart phones, posing a strong challenge to Sprint, which was the first carrier to introduce 4G phones with the launches of the HTC Evo and the Samsung Epic last year. This week, Sprint announced the HTC Evo Shift, a phone that marks the second generation of 4G devices for the carrier.
AT&T said at CES that it plans to release between five and seven 4G devices during the first half of 2011, with its 4G portfolio numbering 20 products by year-end. The carrier is launching its Long-Term Evolution, or LTE, network later this year. This is the same technology Verizon uses in its 4G network. AT&T’s current network runs on a technology called HSPA+, which is also used by T-Mobile.
When T-Mobile started calling its HSPA+ network “4G” last year, some carriers grumbled that the company was mislabeling its capabilities. But AT&T is now embracing the 4G term for its own HSPA+ network while reminding consumers that its LTE upgrade is forthcoming.
Even with all of the major carriers now touting their 4G speeds, the finger-pointing hasn’t stopped.
“All 4G (networks) are not created equal,” Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg said during his Thursday keynote address at CES. “LTE really amps up mobile speed by a factor of about 10.”