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To wait, or not to wait? Macworld weighs in on the lure of the 3G iPad


Thursday's Macworld article from Jason Snell on the relative merits of waiting for the 3G iPad sets out a good case for the superiority of the more flexible -- and expensive -- AT&T-enabled units. If you can keep your powder dry during the interminable wait through most of April, while your friends are flaunting their WiFi-only units, you might be better off. For the investment of $130 up front, mobile users get GPS capability plus the wireless broadband equivalent of a reserve chute; whenever you find yourself without solid WiFi access, you can buy into the 250 MB on-demand plan and surf as needed.

He also points out one of the undersung prizes of the AT&T plans; they give unlimited access to the company's WiFi infrastucture across the country, including thousands of Starbucks hotspots and former Wayport networks (lots of hotels and airports, where the daily fee for broadband could quickly add up to the $14.95 you'd pay for a month of 3G). That alone is a noticeable benefit.

I agree with Jason's main point: unless your iPad use model is restricted to known hotspot zones, it makes good sense to consider the 3G units. It's only at the end of the post, in the crystal ball 'n tea leaves department, that I wonder if he's right: anticipating a relatively near-term scenario where the iPad product line unifies to an all-3G offering, and the WiFi-only iPad simply goes away.

It's certainly true that "Apple is a company that prefers simplicity in its product lines," as Jason says. To say that the presence of six SKUs for the iPad is going to "chafe a whole lot of people in Cupertino," however, seems to be a stretch. Would three iPad models be more to the company's liking? Well, sure -- but there are six pocket products for iPhone OS (eight, if you count the white and black iPhones as different SKUs, which technically they are), and that seems to be working out fine so far.

You might say "But that's six SKUs across two different products!" (which is pretty much what Jason did say). Yes, the iPhone and the iPod touch have some powerful differentiators, like the presence of 3G and GPS on the iPhone (sound familiar?), and of course the fact that one makes phone calls and the other one mostly does not. Despite those differences, what unifies them into a single product family is that they share the same OS & application suite, the same UI, and the same ability to use the App Store; if they were living creatures, they might be two closely related species in the same genus. Give an iPhone user an iPod touch, let them sync up their apps and content from iTunes, and off they'll go -- in much the same way that a Mac mini owner could migrate to a MacBook without worrying about rebuying all the software and learning new ways of doing things.

Given that we're already looking at a 6-8 SKU population in the "pocket touch" family of devices, a six-SKU gaggle of iPads doesn't seem like too much to manage, nor does it bust Cook's Product Postulate ("everything we sell could probably fit on a conference table"). That brings us to Jason's second forecast: ubiquitous WLAN connectivity on everything. "Embedding cellular connectivity in devices is the future," he says. "I'd imagine that, by this time next year, every iPad Apple sells will include cellular-data access." The emphasis is mine, and that's because that forecast time is relevant.

There are several reasons why Apple might not choose to sell every iPad with a cell antenna, SIM slot and radio chipset; cost, weight, battery life, and potential regulatory hurdles outside the US all come to mind. What's also interesting to me is that April 2011 target and how it matches up with the LTE rollout from Verizon -- yes, you remember them -- as we're hearing more and more whispers of a V-iPhone, presumably ready for both CDMA and LTE-based 4G, coming in the third quarter. If Verizon keeps to its schedule, there will be 30 markets and more than 100 million US consumers covered by the new high-speed wireless network by the time 2010 rolls to a close, with more coverage rolling out through 2011.

In April of 2011, the lure of selling an iPad with 4G on board would be most compelling to Apple's engineering and marketing teams. It would be unstoppably fast in covered areas and finally begin to deliver on the two-way video future we're all looking towards. The catch: 4G chipsets will still be at a premium, and 4G service will still be putting a drag on battery life... so I'm betting there will still be room for a (relatively) bargain-priced iPad without it when the calendar rolls around. I do believe Jason's right in principle and that the unified iPad theory is eventually going to be proven out, but my guess is that we won't see full-4G across the iPad line until Q4 2011 or even the beginning of 2012.

If I'm wrong, I'll buy Jason a beer. And pay for it using my iPad.

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