CHICAGO—Just like Clearwire shows in its video demos, you can ride in the back seat of a moving vehicle and watch a Disney flick or do practically anything you might traditionally do at your desktop PC.
That’s the idea – according to CEO Ben Wolff – take your Internet experience in the palm of your hand, wherever and whenever you want.
I got a first-hand view of the service in motion at WiMAX World yesterday. The most painful part of the demo was having my picture taken before getting into the back seat, but that was part of the demonstration of the Flickr service, so you have to be a sport and go along with it.
It starts at the back of the vehicle, or trunk for lack of a better word, where the computers sit. From the back seat, you can see a screen mounted for easy viewing, and there’s another screen in the front, presumably for the front-seat passenger, or, for navigational purposes, the driver.
In Chicago, Clearwire demonstrated the service using Sprint’s Xohm network. Would they still be using Xohm if their impending merger were not under way? Yes, I was told. After all, that vendor-friendly working relationship has been at the cornerstone of WiMAX, so why wouldn’t they? Besides, they have used Sprint’s network in previous demos in other cities, too, so don’t go searching for any ulterior motives here.
Back to the demo. I have to say, it was really cool. I was half expecting another ho-hum, look-what-you-can-see-from-here type of spiel – and navigate around, too. But it was more than that, and as Wolff acknowledged after my demo, it’s not really that easy to describe the experience. You more or less need to show it.
While headed to this show and for the past couple days, one thing that I kept wondering is how is WiMAX ever going to show consumers that this is so cool, they need to leave their present service provider – maybe 3G wireless, maybe not – and try this out?
Part of that question was answered with Sprint’s pricing for Xohm in Baltimore, which amounts to about $35 for home use and $45 for mobility after the initial introductory offer. That sounds pretty good, but I’m not sure that’s enough of a draw when it’s so early in the game and there’s the coverage-to-come-in-other-cities issue. But, I suspect Sprint probably will fiddle with pricing, and roaming will come.
Another piece of the question was answered during Wolff’s morning keynote about what Clearwire has been seeing in its customer uptake in the 46 markets where it offers a fixed service. There, about two-thirds of customers are former DSL or cable customers. So, word is getting out.
Back to the moving vehicle demo. I was shown how you can use Skype to call a local restaurant to find out what time they close. You can use Google maps to find things relative to your location. You can watch Dan Hesse on YouTube hinting about what 4G might bring.
The demo set-up was slick. I was told that Clearwire has been in touch with car manufacturers and the aftermarket suppliers about potentially outfitting vehicles with the convenient screens. That takes time, so maybe someday.
In sum, I came to the show determined not to drink the Kool-Aid that gets so heavily distributed at these kinds of events. But it’s difficult not to get a little excited when you see the service in action. Sprint will need to continue tweaking the Baltimore market, both technically and marketing-wise, and they have a long way to go with the new Clearwire. But overall, it’s not a bad attempt to offer something other than the 2-year contracts and confounding pricing that has permeated the wireless industry so much these past few years.