Ultramobiles Struggle for Respect

Continued criticism by industry insiders didn't stop vendors from OQO to Lenovo and LG from showing off ultramobile PC products with range of innovative features at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held in Las Vegas last week.

With many of the prototypes displayed due to hit the market later this year, UMPCs continue to be panned for their inconvenient keyboards, small screen sizes and poor battery life ever since the first UMPC from OQO was introduced at CES in 2004.

OQO showed off a WiMax-capable OQO Model 2 UMPC, powered by Via Technologies' C7-M mobile processors and running Windows Vista OS. It comes with hard-drive or flash-based solid-state drive options, supports up to 1GB of RAM, and has a sliding display that pops up to show a keyboard. Weighing around 1 pound (453 grams), prices start at US$1,299.

Eyes were locked on UMPC prototypes from companies including Lenovo and Founder at Intel's booth. The Lenovo device includes the Linux OS from Chinese developer Red Flag Software, and boasts a 4.8-inch touchscreen, an onboard camera, and other features. The Founder Mini-Note features a 7-inch screen, a 60G-byte hard drive, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless networking, and weighs around 800 grams.

Intel's prototypes are based on its Menlow platform, a code name given to a set of Intel chips for ultramobile PCs due out next year. Menlow will include a new low-power microprocessor, code-named Silverthorne, and a chipset code-named Poulsbo.

One prototype that may never ship is a slider UMPC displayed in LG's booth, also based on the Menlow platform. The device runs Windows Vista, comes with a 4.8-inch screen, 1G byte of memory, a 40G-byte hard disk drive, a touchscreen, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 3G HSDPA cellular data. A representative at the LG booth said the company had not decided whether to market the device, as it suffered from poor battery life and keyboard usage issues.

UMPCs create a design challenge by virtue of being a tweener -- neither a cell phone nor a laptop, said Phil McKinney , vice president and chief technology officer at HP's personal systems group. "The UMPCs -- OQO and those guys -- are trying to be too much on the small side, very heavy, not great battery life, they get hot in your hand too when you use it. But when you get north of 9-inch screens, you're getting pretty close to a laptop," McKinney said.

Screens up to 7 inches are not an appropriate scale for use of screen for touch-based applications, McKinney said.

UMPCs have floundered around for a while as a killer application for mobile devices hasn't been discovered yet, McKinney said. "There's a lot of people coming out with products, I don't think anybody's found what the killer application or what that killer use case model really is," McKinney said.

Alp Sezen, a sales director for Via Technologies based in Fremont, California, said that a reason UMPC sales have not increased dramatically, at least in the U.S., is that wireless bandwidth for mobile devices up to now has been slow.

"The biggest problem with ultramobile devices is they need more bandwidth. When the user experience for mobile wireless is better, that's when you will see ultramobile devices really take off," Sezen said. "Right now you typically get 116K [bits per second] when you are mobile, which isn't a great user experience." A true ultramobile experience is the ability to pull out a mobile device and easily surf the Web. "Right now, you can't get that experience," Sezen said.

It will take a year or two for the mobile wireless experience to get better, Sezen said. "WiMax, and the opening up of Verizon's EV-DO network in the third quarter this year will help give a better experience for ultramobile users."

Intel has categorized UMPCs under the Mobile Internet Device (MID) nomenclature, and segments the devices further based on applications like entertainment, productivity and navigation, said Pankaj Kedia, director of the global ecosystem program for mobile Internet and UMPC platforms. The look and feel of devices, the marketing technique and what users want to buy is different, Kedia said.

Clarion's UMPC, for example, will be marketed as a next-generation navigation device, Kedia said. "It might have the capability of a PC under the hood, but from a user perspective it is a portable navigation mobile Internet device," Kedia said. UMPCs are more like MIDs aimed at productivity with PC capabilities inside.

When asked if a prototype UMPC that Qualcomm showed off at CES would replace cell phones, company chief technology officer Sanjay Jha thought for a second and then replied: "I don't know."

Different people might use them in different ways, Jha said. Also, how consumers use UMPCs might depend on how successful Bluetooth becomes, he said. Some consumers might be happy to use a UMPC instead of a cell phone if they can use a Bluetooth headset to make and receive voice calls, rather than holding the larger device up to their ears, he said.

Fujitsu's Paul Moore, senior director of mobile product marketing, also didn't have a definitive description of the ideal UMPC user. Someone who works on their feet a lot and is OK with typing with their thumbs might be an ideal user, he said. But he said the UMPC wouldn't necessarily replace a laptop.

Terminology doesn't matter though, HP's McKinney said. "Let a marketing person loose for 10 minutes and they'll come up with a category. You can say UMPC or MID, what the hell's the difference?"

(Nancy Gohring, Marc Ferranti, Dan Nystedt and Martyn Williams contributed to this report).