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Reader Q&A

Is there a UMPC update at the end of 2007?

I was wondering if I could bother you for your Touch Panel - "The UMPC at the end of 2007" report? The last one I received was in December 2006. Also, wanted to get your overall assessment on the UMPC market place. I know see about 50 UMPC manufacturers and growing but yet when I see some of their business revenue numbers it's a different story? Both VDC and AIM are predicting explosive growth in this area but the question is when is the inflection point going to happen?
Robert Puric, Motorola

Contributing Technology Editor Geoff Walker answers:

I never wrote a UMPC 2007 report. I'd love to do it, but right now I simply don't have the time. See my Post Script below for further thoughts in this area.

My overall assessment of the UMPC market is that it is potentially a very large opportunity with an unknown starting date. Basically the market is waiting for the right combination of form-factor, screen resolution, processing power, storage, wireless connectivity & bandwidth, keyboard, price etc. In my opinion, an inflection point could start by the end of 2009 at the earliest or as late as the end of 2013 at the worst. My best guess is the end of 2011. (It's always four years in the future...!)

It seems clear that a large percentage of enterprise and consumer PC users would like to have a "pocketable" full PC for Internet connectivity and mobile-appropriate PC applications wherever they are. But none of the products developed so far present an acceptable set of tradeoffs. Smartphones are the best solution today, but they're not full PCs. The Apple iPhone has shown the incredible power of a full-scale browser in a pocketable device with a 3.5" screen; now the capability of the rest of the device has to catch up with the browser.

Intel has a new initiative called "MID" (Mobile Internet Device) that could get some initial traction by the end of 2008 (even if it does, it will still take at least three years to become even minimally significant in the CE business - thus my 2011 estimate). The initiative is based on a new ultra-low-power CPU called Silverthorn which is different enough to make a significant difference. It can run XP at a decent speed while consuming very little power. That leaves the display as the remaining last hurdle. For a minimally acceptable full-PC experience, it is generally agreed that 1024x600 (WSVGA) is required. Because of the wide aspect ratio, this makes a surprisingly acceptable pocketable screen in the 4" to 5" diagonal range. But even with an LED backlight the display still draws a substantial amount of power. And three hours of battery life isn't going to be acceptable in a MID - it's not usable enough, so the weight and volume will increase with a sufficiently large battery. (See for a reference on Silverthorn.)

You're right, in the last year an incredible variety of new machines has hit the market. I assume you know that as of May 2007, Microsoft and Intel changed the definition of UMPC. It no longer has any design restrictions in terms of screen size, touch, target price, etc. A UMPC is now defined as "any portable computer running full Windows with a screen size of 7 inches or smaller". So everything from the OQO to the Sony U-Vaio series to the Samsung Q1 are now UMPCs. As usual, Microsoft and Intel have done essentially no marketing on the new concept, so it's generally unknown to people outside of the mobile computing industry. Intel's MID concept takes the new definition of UMPC and removes the "Windows" restriction to create a new second category below the UMPC. Of course Microsoft doesn't go along with this, but that doesn't matter. A MID as defined by Intel can run any OS; many of them will run Mobile Linux. But that's OK because even with Linux the device can still provide PC-like functionality - browser, email, text processing, etc. It's just a more specialized device that requires less storage and uses even less power. The key to the MID is a full-PC browser experience. If you dig a little bit on the Intel website, you can find a presentation online on the MID from Intel's 2007 IDF conference.

Is the MID going to see more explosive growth than the UMPC? Probably, because the price will be lower (no Microsoft OS license fee!) and the functionality will be sufficient. Will a MID include a phone? Unlikely, in my opinion -- "convergence" isn't all it's cracked up to be. Many people in the industry remain unconvinced that the cellphone will morph into a single do-everything device. The problems solved by a phone and a MID are different. A phone can become REALLY tiny if it's mostly voice-activated (limited vocabulary); a MID needs a big enough screen to be usable on the Web and some method of text input such as an on-screen touch keyboard or a pull-out/swivel keyboard. A MID is inherently a data-centric device, so it also needs a stylus for such things as calendar entry. Free-dictation (unlimited vocabulary) voice recognition isn't likely to become a reality on a MID for another 10 years. There will always be some places you go where you want a phone (like out to a dress-up party in the evening) but don't need and don't want to carry a MID-sized device. I'm just not convinced that MIDs and phones will converge into a single device.

Based in Silicon Valley, Geoff Walker is Global Director of Product Management at Elo TouchSystems. Prior, he was a consultant with Walker Mobile, LLC ( Geoff has worked on the engineering and marketing of mobile computers since 1982 at GRiD Systems, Fujitsu Personal Systems (now Fujitsu Computer Systems) and Handspring. In addition to mobile computers, Geoff's areas of particular expertise include displays and digitizers.