2009 Year in Review: Carriers embrace netbooks, ereaders

The news: Wireless carriers have been dabbling in embedded wireless devices and machine-to-machine (M2M) connections for some time, but this was the year they backed up their talk with action and pushed netbooks and ereaders on a wide scale.

AT&T Mobility kicked things off in April when it announced promotional offers for netbooks with embedded mobile broadband in select markets. Shortly thereafter, T-Mobile USA, which has been involved in M2M efforts for years, launched an embedded SIM card for M2M solutions. In May, Verizon Wireless followed AT&T into the netbook game with an offering of its own, while AT&T prepared for a nationwide netbook rollout.

The push did not let up in the fall. Sprint Nextel formed its own M2M-focused business unit (and launched its first netbook), while AT&T kept on launching netbooks, including the Booklet 3G, Nokia's first netbook. AT&T also said it would open a new lab designed specifically to test and certify embedded wireless and M2M devices for its network.

Another device that become popular this year was the ereader. Sprint cracked open the market with last year's launch of the Amazon Kindle. However, AT&T became the clear leader this year with deals to provide wireless connectivity for ereaders from Plastic Logic, Sony, Amazon's international version of the Kindle and the nook, the new ereader from Barnes & Noble. Not to be outdone, Verizon also gave its support to an ereader made by iRex Technologies, and Sprint said it would provide wireless connectivity for a range of dedicated ereaders next year as part of a new digital publishing service from Hearst called Skiff.

Why it was significant: With wireless penetration rates rising and voice service fast becoming a commodity, wireless carriers have turned to mobile data as their key growth driver. Realizing that they need to move beyond the smartphone, carriers this year embraced a whole slew of netbooks and ereaders and increased their M2M visibility. And though carriers' enthusiasm for the effort is clear, what's still cloudy is the business models and strategies that will turn the actions into profits. Operators in 2009 woke up to the opportunities that embedded wireless and M2M present; 2010 will see if they are fruitful.