Nvidia's $99 Computer Still Needs a Carrier

At the Mobile World Congress trade show that wrapped up yesterday in Barcelona, the mobile and the PC world may have collided, but carriers still have the upper hand. Nvidia (s NVDA), for example, said it will use its Tegra chipset and Windows CE to create a mobile computing platform that could cost as little as $99. That’s pretty cool, but in talking with Nvidia’s Michael Rayfield, general manager of the mobile business unit, about the device I was struck by how far the divide between the carriers and the computer makers remain.

While this a platform with features that consumers will undoubtedly want, neither Nvidia nor OEMs can control the most important aspect of the gadget — ubiquitous access to the web. Much like vermouth turns gin into a martini, it takes a 3G or 4G network to turn these tiny computers into mobile Internet devices. Rayfield was fairly sanguine about the carriers’ willingness to embrace full-featured mobile Internet devices on their networks, but I have my doubts.

First, there’s the issue of pricing data plans. It’s still far too expensive to buy data plans for phones, MIDs and laptops — and there are few bundling options. There are also the limitations with the carriers’ current plans, which cap data use at 5GB per month — easy to exceed on a video-playing mobile web device.  Carriers can also cripple devices they sell and subsidize, such as Verizon (s vz), which cuts out Wi-Fi, or others that try to protect cash cows like texting by classifying instant messages as texts.

As the relatively open and hyper-competitive world of computing is meeting the closed, oligopoly of the carriers, I hope Rayfield’s optimism isn’t misplaced.