Laptop makers Dell and Lenovo have both announced deals in Europe to deliver laptops bundled with a Vodafone 3G service. The Lenovo announcement came this week; Dell has been talking about this since September 2005 and has now put a May delivery date on the products.

The move seems obvious. Since Vodafone delivered 3G datacards two years ago (and we reviewed them), other operators have followed, and business users have started to use 3G data.

"The uptake across business users for 3G data cards has been very positive," says analyst Rachel Lashford of Canalys. The operators claim 3G will even be preferable to Wi-Fi.

"In end user research, we found that once they have 3G up and running, they will default to it," said Mark Whitby, director of third party channels at Vodafone. "They can connect much more freely and readily, and the service is more consistent."

So will you buy a laptop like a phone?
There's a big difference between 3G and Wi-Fi, however. 3G is a cellular service from the world of mobile phones, which focuses on coverage, and selling services, with the hardware subsidised. Could notebooks be headed that way?

At first sight, it looks like they might. Already if you buy a laptop online, you are likely to find it bundled with a "free 3G data card worth £199" from Vodafone, T-Mobile or O2. The data card gets you on a contract with the operator so they have no problem offering it for free.

When the 3G card gets built into the laptop, however, the subsidy won't extend further, according to Dell and Vodafone, beyond making the option free or very cheap.

"There are service revenues connected with using our network," said Whitby. "But it won't change the way people buy PCs." The Dell laptop will come with software to sign up for Vodafone's 3G service, and a memory stick with Vodafone applications.

No lock-in?
Although 3G laptops may ship with software for one operator, however, they will not be locked to that network, and it will be easy to change to a different provider, says Dell.

"We will ship with a Vodafone SIM and will be certified for the Vodafone network," says James Griffiths, head of client products for Dell in EMEA. "Our hardware wouldn't be tested on other networks, but there's no reason why it shouldn't work."

"The SIM will be underneath the battery," says Griffiths. "And our batteries are easier to remove than phone batteries."

3G as a basic option
Dell will build a 3G antenna into all the laptops in its next range, along with another four antennas for GPRS, 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi, and an antenna which should work with 802.11n.

"We looked carefully at the design, including where and how we integrate the antennas," says Griffiths. "There will be no bumps or external bits sticking out. It will be positioned to avoid noise generated inside the system - performance should be better than other embedded solutions, and better than some PC card solutions."

The idea is to make 3G an option to choose when buying the laptop. Other wireless technologies such as ultra-wideband (UWB) and WiMax are still a long way off this level of maturity, says Griffiths.

But how much will it get used?
While Vodafone expects 3G to become the user's default wireless connection, others aren't so sure. "There is a high 3G tariff, and international roaming charges," warns Rachel Lashford, analyst at Canalys. "Before we see significant uptake, operators need to sort out predictable costs. That's a key requirement for enterprises."

There are some flat-rate tariffs available, although these tend to have a usage limit, above which data is charged at a high rate. "Users might pay £50 a month for unlimited usage," says Lashford. "Wi-Fi prices could be the benchmark."

Billing is another issue. When users get a laptop, they will have another SIM and another bill from a mobile provider. Even if their 3G laptop and their mobile are on the same network, they will probably have two separate bills, warns Vodafone.

Enterprises will want to combine bills and make them predictable, says Lashford, and Vodafone promises this will be possible, although the deals for big companies are necessarily subject to negotiation.

The final drawback may be that 3G services are not universal world-wide. "Wi-Fi is a global standard, but 3G is not even a standard," says Lashford. "Users would have issues connecting to a mobile network in Japan or the US."