Why the UMPC will be successful - Part 1

, posted: 30-Mar-2006 23:12

So the UMPC is about to hit store shelves.  Lots of people are wondering whether these devices will make any sense in the market and if they will sell at all.  Here's my take for what it's worth.

Looking at the platform design goals, there are four key advantages of the Ultra Mobile PC:

  • Full PC and internet capabilities
  • Location adaptability
  • Anytime connectivity
  • Ultra mobility

In this series I'll look at each of these and try and figure out why this advantage is compelling.

Part 1. Full PC and internet capabilities.
Three are currently two categories of mobile devices in the market today (and I've probably simplified this a little too much). 

Category One - Laptops and traditional Tablet PCs
The first category is laptops - and I'd include traditional tablets in this too.  These devices are normally quite heavy, A4 size or more and normally require that you are sitting down at a table (or at a struggle you can put one on your knees).  Tablets are a little different in this sense in that you can use them standing up, but they are still quite awkward - just as an A4 pad is awkward standing up.  Don't get me wrong - tablets are definitely better than laptops, but I still find them awkward to work with in many scenarios.

Obviously this category of device has lots of capabilities - after all it is a full blown computer - albeit a portable one. Most laptops and many tablets have all the functionality of a PC in a portable form, meaning that when you are sitting down at the coffee table in your local café you can do everything that you can do when you are sitting at your desk.  Obviously networking capabilities are a key requirement to fulfil this scenario though, and thankfully most are now equiped with full wireless capabilities.

Category Two - Mobile devices
The second category of mobile device in the market is mobile devices and in the Windows world this would be the Windows CE based devices such as Windows Mobile Pocket PC's and smartphones.

Devices in this category run an operating system that is designed for the embedded device market.  This means that they can get quite small and increasingly have good battery life.  The drawback to having an embedded operating system (and this is a general statement - there are exceptions) is that they generally run on processors that are designed for low power devices - which are generally not the same as the processors we run on our desktop/laptop/tablet PCs.  This means that the OS is generally different to the desktop OS and doesn't run the applications that any laptop will run.

Having said that, I think that the Windows Mobile community has come a long way in this regard.  There are tens of thousands of applications available for Windows Mobile devices now and while some are low quality and low value, a great many of them are very useful and well written. 

But this still isn't the real problem with Windows Mobile devices… the real issue with them is that unless you have got the time and inclination to be somewhat compulsive the screen size is often too small.  This fact requires that applications be designed specifically for the screen size, which is not a trivial thing to do well.  Again, there are lots of well written applications (Sygic Mobile contacts comes to mind) that make great use of the Windows Mobile screen size, but most applications on the Pocket PC retain the familiar Windows layout, which is a strength and a weakness.  It's a strength in that it is familiar, but it is a weakness in that it doesn't necessarily make the best use of the screen size.

So I guess that's three things about the Pocket PC (and its worse on a smartphone) that make it hard - different applications to the PC - and fewer of them, small screen and bad use of screen real estate which makes using these devices fiddly for most people.  To test this theory, ask the average person who owns a Pocket PC Phone edition how many applications they've downloaded and installed on their device and the answer will often be very few or none.  There is a group of people (and I'd include myself here) who would install applications and spend the time working with these devices, but there is an even greater group of people who use the devices and would never install any applications on there.  Why? Because the applications are unfamiliar and have a learning curve with them that is often not worth it.  They are great for those of us who love gadgets and geeky things, but the average man doesn't want a bar of it.

Enter the UMPC…
The UMPC is smaller than a tablet, but bigger than a Pocket PC, thus it overcomes the Pocket PCs screen size obstacle, and the larger form factor of the Laptop and Tablet.

With the UMPC standing up and working with this device becomes feasible, not only because you can hold it in one hand (as opposed to cradling it in one arm like a tablet) while you use it but also because you can use the dial keys (see the dial keys in action here). 

While we are talking about standing use, you'll find the UMPC easier to work with than a tablet while standing because the tablet generally requires that you cradle the tablet in your arm (tiny tablets such as the Motion LS800 would be an exception).  This limits the distance that you can have it from your face meaning you have to move your head towards the device to get a closer look or revert to using two hands to hold it further away.  With the UMPC you can move the device closer or further away easily as you are using it one handed.  Why does this matter?  Often with stylus and touch screens you want to see the point of interception more clearly so that you can be more accurate with a particular action - this can be awkward on a tablet (although perhaps a little less necessary).

In addition the dial keys should allow you to enter data more easily than a stylus.  I spend much time with a keyboard typing everyday, and I can type as quick as I think in most cases.  When I go back to writing, I'm constantly frustrated by how slow it is to enter anything, tapping is so much quicker, and so the dial keys should help in this particular situation.  Even if the dial keys are no quicker than writing, they will still be less frustrating because they are more like the data entry method I'm used to and I'll still feel productive - rather than frustrated.  In this way the data entry on the UMPC suits both novice users and power users - those familiar with a pen and those happy with tap entry - i.e. the full power of a PC.

In addition, the UMPC will allow users to run the applications they know and love.  This is a great thing.  I have a couple of applications that I run on my home PC that I'd love to have with me wherever I go.  I also have applications on my work laptop that should really be on my home laptop.  These cross over scenarios should be a think of the past with the UMPC as its small enough to take most places with you, but it's powerful enough to run the applications you commonly use on your desktop.

So the UMPC has the full functionality of a full blown PC, all the familiarity of Windows XP and is small enough to travel with you most places.

What about the drawbacks?
The most common concern you see about the UMPC is that it's too big or the battery life is not quite what you'd like it to be. 

For those who are really like Pocket PCs it will probably be too big.  If you have the time and inclination to work with a small device, that's fair enough, a UMPC may not be for you.  But this is not the experience of the average person.  The average person wants something small enough to carry around, but that has the functionality (i.e. applications) of their desktop/laptop PC and a short learning curve.  Well - that's where the UMPC fits perfectly. 

Battery life will be a problem to start with.  Although, its battery is no worse than a laptop devices, many people perceive that their requirements will be to have the device running all day.  This situation will slowly get better.  Last week we saw the announcement of the Samsung flash hard drive which should require less battery power than the spinning mechanical things we have now, which will lead to less drain and longer periods between charges.  In addition I think that cradles will be a popular accessory for these devices, allowing users to plug the device in for a charge when they get back to their desks/office/wherever. 

Finally I think that we will just have to get used to carrying a power cable around with us.  We do it with laptops, so we'll have to do it with these too.  Sad but true - for the moment at least.

Full PC and internet capabilities?
I haven't gone into the internet side of things yet, I'll cover that in one of the future posts on this subject. 

Hopefully what you see above is a sampling of some of the reasons why I think this is a device that is primed for it's time.  There's more to come, but that is for another day.

Other related posts:
Is this my next UMPC?
UMPC's coming to NZ
Local coverage and a Vista TIP tip

Comment by chiefie, on 31-Mar-2006 11:01

Cool thanks Darryl.

This is useful. I think the cradle will be useful and looking forward to see if Samsung will include their 32GB flash HDD.

and perhap someone will come out with a cradle/cover bag that you can tuck the UMPC in while carrying it, and when using it while near a power socket, one could plug in the power from the cradle/cover bag to the power socket and continue using it while it is being charged.

Author's note by darrylb, on 31-Mar-2006 12:26

There are more reasons... this is just the first reason. Ill post more in the next few days.

Comment by Frank J., on 1-Apr-2006 00:58

And I would add to this comment that they will come with a price right in between those two categories.

Comment by techremarks, on 1-Apr-2006 17:51

Good analysis. Not sure I agree from one perspective. Price. USD1,000 will never make it a mass market device.

Great blog! I have added your blog to the blogroll at our Techremarks blog: http://techremarks.com/

Author's note by darrylb, on 1-Apr-2006 22:02

Thanks for your comments :-)

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Darryl Burling
New Zealand

Officially my homepage on the web is at www.burling.co.nz.

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