Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
Last week's Switched On discussed some of the promise of WiMAX as delivered through Sprint's Xohm service. There are at least three larger open questions about the prospects for WiMAX, particularly as an embedded technology. First, we now know more about how the service will be offered, but we don't know at what prices it will be offered, at least for the blanket subscription. Web surfing on an EV-DO connection may not quite rival a home broadband experience, but it's often more than adequate for most Web tasks. WiMAX will certainly have to be priced significantly below the $60 per month that today's operators charge as an add-on to a wireless subscription or whatever they may lower prices to by 2008 and 2009.
Second, while the idea of not charging a subscription for embedded access is a step toward ubiquitous wireless access for devices, it is far from a guarantee of adoption, particularly in a competitive consumer electronics category. Embedding such products exacts a premium both at the cash register and in terms of battery life. Both the PSP and Nintendo DS include WiFi, but digital camera manufacturers have struggled with it outside of the professional market and it isn't in any mainstream camcorder.
While the Zune and especially the Sansa Connect have some interesting features built on WiFi (as should the Slacker portable player due later this year), neither has come close to rivaling the iPod, which (at least up until this point) has lacked an FM radio, much less a a data radio. However, there's a strong argument that WiFi's limited coverage makes it far less useful than WiMAX (imagine if you could only use your cell phone at home or at a coffee shop).
Last week's column discussed some of the niche devices that are slated to appear early in the Xohm rollout. However, while there are certainly strong pockets of growth among digital cameras and MP3 players, their overall growth is slowing in the U.S. (and camcorder units are declining) as average prices drop, making it more difficult to cram in new features such as WiFi and WiMAX. Saturation is driving this more than cannibalization from the cell phone.
Xohm can help its own cause. If it can breathe new life into existing devices or help spur new popular ones (say, a wireless, portable DVR / video viewer), it will drive demand and differentiation from the cell phone. However, as Sprint embraces retail consumer electronics, it will see that -- on some level -- the enemy is itself, a familiar position for a company that has juggled hosting the wireless networks of Helio, Disney Mobile, its cable joint venture Pivot and its own Boost.