AT&T courts manufacturers to add 3G wireless to devices beyond the handset

When AT&T’s Glenn Lurie worked with Apple for the exclusive U.S., AT&T-only iPhone, he established the business model. Now, he’ll be heading up a new initiative — as president of AT&T Emerging Devices — to make similar deals promoting 3G links in devices from computers to digital cameras and car-navigation to entertainment systems. He’s following the lead of Verizon Wireless, which just this year moved to allow any third-party device work on its network.

The new organization is a key component of AT&T's business strategy. The carrier hopes to expand its wireless penetration and develop new distribution models that will, first, enhance existing devices for consumers and businesses with wireless connectivity and, second, drive development of new categories of devices and applications.

But while the model was enormously successful in the one-off case of the iconic iPhone, how extensible it really?

First, there are the device manufacturers. The fact that AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint have incompatible technologies has forced electronics makers to choose one standard or multiply design costs to support each technology; so, they’ll need some persuasion.

Customers may resist, too. Will they have to sign up for a new account for each device they want to connect? Maybe people won't want to change mobile carriers just to watch “What Not to Wear” in their vans while driving to Lake Tahoe.

It's time to rethink this upside-down model. It's as if every ISP is connected to a different — and incompatible — Internet. It sounds silly, but that's the model today for 3G services like mobile TV and broadband. Rather than signing up for multiple services, it's more likely that customers will look elsewhere for ubiquitous connections.

And with Intel putting its formidable industry heft behind WiMAX, I think AT&T has an uphill challenge here.

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