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With the battle over tablets ready to explode this year, the fact manufacturers are increasingly enabling their smartphones to act as mobile hot spots poses intriguing scenarios for drivers and passengers.

Apple may have made its usual splash with the iPad 2, but its recent iOS 4.3 update added something it calls Personal Hotspot, which is just another term for mobile Wi-Fi. The new feature turns the iPhone into a mobile hot spot and allows up to five devices to tap into its 3G data connection using Wi-Fi.

Tethering an iPhone to a computer was already possible going back to 2008, and even Google rolled out mobile hotspot capabilities with its Android 2.2 release, though not every phone using it could actually access it.

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But mobile hot spots are here to stay. And having tried them over the course of a week - sometimes with passengers and sometimes without - I like how it all works. Why bother getting a pricey shared data plan like the one Rogers offers when you can harness your smartphone's data plan to connect other devices. It's certainly easy, since you just turn the feature on, choose a password and let others connect.

The unfortunate part is that carriers can decide to disable the feature on a phone, if they want. Rogers had initially flirted with that idea when iPhone tethering incurred no extra costs, but just left it alone in the end. It's likely that the carriers will probably let this one go, too.

The timing behind this is also unique because of the influx of tablets the market will absorb this year. Tablets are data-heavy devices, and experimenting with an iPad this way proved to be a lot of fun. Passengers could browse the web, navigate maps and traffic, stream video remotely from home and on and on. Even using the Kindle or Kobo apps, downloading e-books was a breeze. In fact, those with e-readers could just as easily log in and do the same thing.

True, these things could generally be done with a smartphone alone, but the point is that others can make use of the data on your phone without ever touching it. Granted, most data plans offered by the carriers aren't flush with tons of disposable data to use, but my hunch is that most users are probably not approaching anywhere near their cap anyway. And if the demand for more continues, the carriers may have to relent and provide better plans. Here's hoping they might.

One message that auto makers have touted lately, in tandem with consumer electronics companies, is the idea of Wi-Fi in the car. With mobile hot spots, it's already a reality. If there are built-in apps in a car, they could just piggyback off the smartphone's data plan to connect.

But the setup has more to do with how the other connected devices interact with the Internet and each other. For example, having two kids playing video games in the back seat could be very different if a mobile hot spot enables them to play against each other. Same goes for uploading photos from a road trip and transferring them to someone sitting in the back with a tablet ready to edit them.

The rest of this year will see this kind of functionality and connectivity grow more and more, particularly as it moves from early adopters to the mainstream. Of course, having multiple devices eat up data simultaneously isn't always ideal, and there could be some lag when you have one passenger playing a game online, while another tries to stream live TV.

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Still, the fun of it is in trying, and being able to keep yourself and others connected when your wheels are turning.

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