I'm moderately excited about the speed improvements to Safari in the new iOS 4.3 and I can see big benefits in opening up AirPlay to all applications. But I'm reserving my main enthusiasm for the Personal Hotspot feature. This enables you to use your iPhone as mini router with similar features to the Novatel MiFi which I've been using for a couple of years. The MiFi, though, needs a separate SIM and data contract.
The new feature allows you to connect up to three devices via wifi, three via Bluetooth and one with a USB cable. This means that, in theory, you can manage with just one account and power your laptop, your iPad and other devices from the SIM in the phone. With the wifi and Bluetooth connections there will be iPhone battery-life issues – as there is with the MiFi which barely manages four hours on one charge – and I shall be experimenting over the next few days to see how things go. With the USB connection to a laptop, though, the iPhone's battery should at least stay at the same level while using the internet connection. An external top-up battery pack, such as my HyperMac Micro, is going to be a popular accessory; but it is a much cheaper option that paying for a second data contract.
Set up for the Personal Hotspot couldn't be easier. The menu item is right there in Settings on the first page beneath WiFi. The sub-menu includes full instructions for wifi, Bluetooth and direct USB connections. I had the wifi running within a minute (and it is working without setting up any special arrangements with my carrier). The USB connection is even simpler. Just switch on Personal Hotspot on the phone, plug in the phone and yourMacBook Air is connected. It's easier, by far, than wrestling with the software provided by my carrier when using the data dongle.
I note that the usage is showing up as "Tether Data" and I shall have to call Vodafone tomorrow to see whether this is charged extra to my standard 1 GB (probably) and at what rate. This is strange, since I have never signed up for tethering, so they must have some sort of automatic opt-in if you use the service.
According to reports, carriers will require additional modules to permit use of the hotspot, as they did for straightforward tethering, and as far as I know we have not seen details of these charges from the UK providers. Currently I am paying £20 per month for my iPhone contract which includes 300 call minutes, unlimited SMS, 1 GB of 3G data and a further 1 GB of wifi via BT OpenZone premium hotspots. In addition I hand over £15 for 3 GB of data on a second account, which I use for my laptop or iPad, to make a total monthly charge of £35.
I hope to see some cost reduction on this – perhaps £5 a month – by combining everything in the one iPhone contract. Even if there is no great saving, the idea of having just one SIM and one agreement is appealing from a convenience point of view. It's also likely to be easier when travelling abroad if using local SIMs.
It will be interesting to see how the carriers respond to this new challenge because it will inevitably reduce the number of connnections and, on the face of it, prune their income.