April 30, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Mobile minitablets still grounded despite new tech
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Make no mistake about it--these are definitely PCs. "You need devices that can deliver...the richness, the content, everything that people expect on the Internet," Chandrasekher said during his keynote address. "That's not a phone."
Smart phones just aren't meant to browse the Web or work with documents the way that UMPCs are, he said. "A phone is used predominantly for voice calling. It's not designed for data-oriented applications," Chandrasekher said.
However, UMPCs aren't designed to make phone calls, which could be a serious problem if the goal is to compete with sleek smart phones. "You're not going to hold this ham sandwich up to your head," Kay said.
Sure, you could use voice over Internet Protocol software like Skype over a Wi-Fi connection with a Bluetooth headset, as long as you don't wander too far from the access point. Wi-Fi's bigger cousin--WiMax--will start to offer true metro-area mobile broadband in 2008 through Sprint's WiMax project. But it took much longer than a couple of years for the cell phone industry to build widespread high-speed cellular networks in the U.S.
And although Chandrasekher said Intel would include chips--for connecting to cellular networks--into future versions of its technology for MIDs, it's not clear when that will happen or whether mobile carriers would allow that to be a locked or unlocked device.
Stephen Baker of the NPD Group doesn't think voice is what will hold back the UMPC. "People are willing to carry multiple devices if those devices carry a specific feature that it does pretty well. You could get a relatively cheap cell phone to use for voice, and get one of these for Web surfing," he said.
Of course, Apple is about to make a substantial bet that people do want the all-in-one device. The iPhone's imminent arrival has been arguably the talk of 2007. The product is a blend of a video iPod, a handheld mobile Web browser, and a phone.
And other smart phone companies, from Motorola to Palm to Samsung, will no doubt continue to improve the data capabilities of their products while carriers upgrade their cellular networks to faster speeds.
The biggest problem with the UMPC concept is the perception that it's a product in search of a market, a common refrain from analysts and bloggers. It's still not clear what will convince the public to start demanding this type of product. It could be Web surfing, entertainment options, wireless e-mail, gaming, or something that hasn't even been envisioned yet.
"They've got ideas--I'm just not sure how they are going to get implemented," Baker said. In the meantime, the PC industry will continue to try to find a way to augment maturing PC market sales by breaking into the mobile market.
"Just like everybody else, they look at the cellular business (one billion units a year and counting) and say, 'If I could sell five million, I'd be in hog heaven,'" Baker said.
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