Wednesday, January 2, 2008

2007 UMPC's: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

On the eve of CES 2008, it seems appropriate to look back on developments in Ultra Mobile PC's in 2007. First we had the UMPC category. Then it was renamed as "UMD" (Ultra Mobile Device, not to be confused with WMD's, Weapons of Mass Destruction). Finally, it was renamed as "MID" or Mobile Internet Device. Other than a lot of three letter acronyms, what does this really signify?

To start, this indicates that the UMPC/UMD/MID category is a segment in search of a market niche. The features, functionality, and implementation of the first several generations of UMPC's have been less than overwhelming to consumers, so the marketers are hard at work trying to redefine the segment, the market or both.

In it's latest incarnation, the 'MID" has transitioned from the Windows-based UMPC used as miniature PC to a Linux-based device which is either fixed function or built as a dedicated device for a particular usage.

The Good: Although the iPhone and its sibling the iPod Touch were not classified as MID's by Apple, it has the key features which were originally targeted by the UMPC/UMD/MID segment, namely anywhere Internet access using both WWAN (EDGE for the iPhone) and WiFi (for both the iPhone and iPod Touch). These devices render full fidelity web pages using the Safari browser and the embedded OS X. While one can argue that Flash plugin for animation is not supported, this is more of a strategic choice by Apple to promote Quicktime rather than a technical limitation of the iPhone/iPod Touch. Further, Apple has even opened up the devices to third party developers after initially closing off the devices to these developers.

Another product which deserves mention is the Nokia N800 and the newly introduced N810. The N800, shown at CES 2007 and shipping in volume in January, showed how a small, light device running Linux, priced at $399 could do most of functions of the UMPC while being half the size and weight of any shipping self identified "UMPC". The N810 added a keyboard to the outstanding N800, and increased the price to $480.

The Bad: The majority of the UMPC's introduced in 2007 fall into this category. All were too large to be pocketable, too heavy, too limited in battery life to fulfil the UMPC promise. The poster child of bad UMPC's is the Samsung Q1 Ultra. The second generation of Q1 was introduced last year with a split keyboard that seem to kludged on the case.

The Ugly: The Oqo Model 2 is a beautifully looking device to be sure. But its price, from $1,500 (since lowered to $1,300) to over $2,000 is "ugly" and unfriendly to consumers. The Model 2 changed out the underpowered, and overly hot Transmeta processor for a Via processor and added WWAN radio. The Oqo is still the smallest and best designed of the crop of UMPC's but it's pricing indicates its target segment is business vertical markets, not consumers.

So, I'm looking forward to some new announcements at CES next week that shows there is still life left in this segment.

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