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Who wants a WiMax handheld device?

No-one, till there's a WiMax network to use it on.

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Despite its cool features, it may be a while before businesses warm up to MTube - the world's first WiMax-enabled ultramobile PC. Analysts say the market for MTube - or similar devices - is not assured.

Designed by government-funded research groups in Taiwan, MTube fits into an average sized hand, or pocket, and weighs a mere 150g.

Within this compact form-factor, though, this Linux OS-based device packs a lot of punch.

It features a 2.8-inch, 640 x 480 touchscreen, 8GB of flash memory, and 1GHz, x86-type CPU from Via Technologies that can run apps designed for PCs.

But the MTube's biggest - and most-publicised feature - is that it is WiMax enabled. A telecommunications technology, WiMax provides wireless data over long distances in a variety of ways, from point-to-point links to full mobile cellular type access.

The bandwidth and reach of WiMax make it suitable for several applications including: connecting Wi-Fi hotspots with one another and to other parts of the Internet, serving as a wireless alternative to cable and DSL for last mile broadband access, and providing nomadic connectivity.

Mtube's WiMax capabilities are likely to help uptake in Taiwan - where a concerted government-sponsored effort is currently on to promote WiMax infrastructure, services and products through an initiative dubbed M-Taiwan.

However, analysts say adoption of such devices in North America will be more long-term, and will depend on how quickly the infrastructure for WiMax develops here.

"Right now the demand may not be strong enough now for this technology to expand beyond a certain level, but I think it's a matter of time before it does," said Jayanth Angl, a research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ontario.

He noted that in North America, some providers have heavily invested in WiMax and, on the hardware side, "players such as Intel and Motorola have committed serious dollars to the development of the technology."

Meanwhile, PC market commentators say the tiny form factor of the MTube - which includes a CDMA baseband chip - opens up a host of wireless connectivity options for the device.

"I definitely see it being popular with consumers," said Michelle Warren, a senior research analyst at Info-Tech, who has tracked the mobile computing, IT systems integration, and PC markets within Canada for several years.

But enterprise adoption, Warren predicted, would be limited and in niche areas.

MTube adoption, she said, is most likely among companies or departments that handle multimedia content, and that need to access, or push out such material over the Web.

"So it will be popular with marketing and PR businesses, and I can see it being used by training departments as well."

The device's WiMax capabilities, Warren said, may also meet the needs of mobile workers, or employees in remote offices or home offices, who need to access or transmit information quickly.

A key driver behind Taiwan's WiMax push is technology's potential to spread broadband access to the nation's remote areas, such as mountain villages, and outlying islands.

Elsewhere, there are few such initiatives. In Canada, bringing broadband to under-served communities an aim of projects in Canada such as Inukshuk (launched a couple of years ago by Bell Canada and Rogers Communications), but there is no comparable WiMax initiative.

Last year Inukshuk Wireless (the Bell Canada-Rogers joint venture) announced completion of the wireless broadband network's initial phase.

The Inukshuk network - though one of the largest of its kind in the world with service available in 20 centres across Canada - is based on pre-WiMax standards.

And as Info-Tech's Angl notes, "the problem today is we're not seeing much progress in terms of spreading [broadband] access to really outlying areas."

He said today WiMax infrastructure is not pervasive enough for the technology to be used as the foundation for broadband to the boonies.

Can the MTube - or a device like it - serve as a laptop replacement?

"Very unlikely," says Warren. "The MTube's form factor is too small for it to be used in such a capacity."

But - if not as a replacement - Warren sees it use as an accessory to the PC. "My guess, it would function much like an appliance, and be used for very specific purposes - such as for e-mail, Internet surfing and video streaming."

She said if subsequent versions of the device included a phone "perhaps with a Bluetooth headset" that would greatly boost the likelihood of adoption.


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