The barrier is not technical, nor do I believe that it is one imposed by Apple in the case of the iPhone.
For all the complaints about Apple choosing a single carrier in each country where the iPhone is available, the company did very well to persuade those carriers to provide buyers with unlimited data plans.
Consequently, the iPhone accounts for a disproportionately large share of mobile Internet use.
But there's only so much browsing and emailing you're likely to do from a phone. Add unlimited 'modem' data to the plan and most users' traffic would multiply several times over. They could drop their cable or ADSL connections, and even share the 3G link with other computers. How much would you be prepared to pay? Would you tolerate 'shaping' after exceeding a certain threshold?
It's not as if treating 'modem' traffic differently is unique to the iPhone. For example, 3 will provide you with mobile web and email use on your handset for $A2 per megabyte on a pay-as-you-go basis, but that doubles to $A4/M for "mobile as a modem" use.
If you're OK with a plan, you can get a whole 100M of web and email traffic to your handset for $A12 per month. Use a PC Card/PC Express card or USB modem, and you get 20 times as much data for less than two and a half times the price (2G for $A29). If you want 2G of data through "mobile as a modem" it'll cost $A49 per month.
Of course, some manufacturers are building HSDPA hardware into certain notebook models, so you don't need a card or modem - just a SIM for the service you plan to use. And later this year we should see support for WiMAX in Intel's notebook chipsets, which is likely to trigger renewed interest in that wireless technology. Either way, no add-on device will be necessary, just as Centrino ushered in the era of almost ubiquitous internal Wi-Fi support on notebooks.
As for the iPhone, don't expect Apple to enable its use as a modem until the carriers are ready to deliver large volumes of data at relatively low monthly prices.
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