This Week in Tablets: ESPN’s mobile subsidy signals a seachange in wireless broadband

May 11, 2013

A few different stories this week provided ample foreshadowing to what I expect will be some major changes in wireless connectivity for our tablets and other devices.

On Thursday night, the Wall Street Journal broke the somewhat surprising news that ESPN is contemplating subsidizing users' data plans by paying wireless carriers to not count users’ ESPN video streams against the carriers’ wireless data limits.

There’s no certainty that this will actually happen—the key word here is “contemplating”—but the fact that a TV network is attempting to take the proverbial reigns off of wireless video volume by allowing its users to not worry about data caps is telling.

If true, it’s certainly a clever move by ESPN’s part. For most people, watching a single live sporting event in HD via 4G will consume their entire monthly data limit in a single viewing. For a company that makes its money selling advertising against these events, that’s not good.

Such a development would be particularly applicable to tablet users. With smartphones, some AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile users still have unlimited data plans. Most tablet owners who have 3G and 4G connectivity however, have no such luck.

Gizmodo’s headline for the story perfectly summed up the crummy circumstances that led ESPN to consider a subsidy. ESPN Wants to Subsidize Your Data Plan Because Carriers Are Awful, the headline read.

Meanwhile, mobile broadband soaring

Despite the frustration of data caps, mobile broadband on tablets continues to grow. Research firm Strategy Analytics is predicting an 8x jump in the number of mobile broadband subscribers from 2012 to 2017, at which point it says over 165 million tablet devices will activate mobile data services.

One of the main propulsions for this rapid adoption is—wait for it—wireless subsidies by the wireless carriers. Of course. This means that, in theory, ESPN could be subsidizing mobile broadband rates for consumers, whose tablets were subsidized by the wireless carriers.

I know this much: At some point, something – pricing, data limts, or both – is going to give on the mobile broadband front as wireless carriers attempt to compete for each others' customers.

New tablet tracker

When I was writing last week’s column, I made the point that we’re seeing multiple new tablet announcements and/or rumors on a weekly basis. This week, it dawned on me that I can and should be tracking these announcements. So here we go:

New Nexus 7? Reports indicate that Google may be announcing a new 1,920 x 1,200 pixel 7-inch Android tablet at next week’s I/O event that will feature a 5MP camera and Texas Instruments’ Qi wireless charging system, which operates via inductive electrical power transfer over small distances.

HTC’s two new Windows 8 RT tablets: Just as people are beginning to write off Windows RT, HTC appears ready to announce both a 7-inch as well as a 12-inch tablet based on the lighter version of Microsoft’s new operating system. Code-named R7 and R12, the rumored tablets are reported to be fully loaded, including a 2,048 x 1536 resolution screen on the bigger model.

(By the way, earlier in the week, Microsoft announced that its Windows Blue update will definitely come in 2013, and, in the words of Microsoft CFO Tami Reller, will deliver “the latest new innovations across an increasingly broad array of form factors of all sizes, display, battery life and performance, while creating new opportunities for our ecosystem.”)

New Asus Transformer: This week, the Taiwanese manufacturer teased what appears to be a smaller version of its Transformer tablet, including a stylus, in a video promoting its upcoming June 3 press conference at the Computex show in Taipei. No other details here as of yet.

Earl, the outdoor survival tablet: Rounding out this week’s new tablet watch is a crowd-funded ruggedized tablet named Earl built specifically for extreme outdoor situations. The Android 4.1 tablet features an advanced GPS that provides location, direction, and elevation, as well as a glove-friendly touchscreen and joypad controller. It’s available for a surprisingly low price of $249 through June 9.

This week’s loser: Barnes & Noble

The middle of the week brought rumors that Microsoft may be on the brink of acquiring Barnes & Noble’s Nook division.

It’s hard to definitively declare either company a winner or loser here. However, the Nook’s downward turn over the holiday season—revenue was down 26% year over year—is not a great sign for Barnes & Noble. At the very least, it will reduce the cost of the acquisition to a rumored $1 billion, whereas the Nook division was previously valued at $1.66 billion.

This week’s winner: tablet stylus users

At the beginning of the week at Adobe’s developer conference, the software maker surprised the crowd by announcing its first-ever tablet peripherals.

Named the Project Mighty stylus and Napoleon ruler, the two devices allow for some pretty unique functionality when used in conjunction with Adobe’s software on the iPad.

As an example,  Adobe apps will recognize if a user is interacting with the screen with the Project Mighty stylus or a finger, and allow you to use the stylus to input drawings and your finger to erase what’s on screen. And the ruler will allow users to more easily draw shapes, lines, and curves.

From the sound of things, these two peripherals are just the beginning of a new suite of hardware Adobe will be releasing over coming years. 


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