Does UMPC = A game change for mobile computing?

As I bet many of you have already heard, there is an industry momentum underway to establish a new category of mobile computer called the UMPC (ultra-mobile PC). If you haven't heard about or seen a UMPC, go check out: www.umpc.com.

I am personally quite interested in UMPC due to my involvement in the healthcare market for which most medical professionals are highly mobile. Also, I travel most weeks for work so I am also a heavy user of mobile technology.

A key question that comes to my mind is will the UMPC category deliver a game changing, forward leap in a mobile computing experience? Or will it be an incremental "tweaner" architecture (as in "lives in between") the full laptop / tablet PC and the Smartphone?

In my mobile computing toolkit, I currently have my dual core sub-notebook, a Palm Treo Smartphone, and most recently acquired a Samsung Q1. My personal, individual goal is to have one, and if forced at most two mobile computing devices for all my computing needs. Primarily, I despise tasks of data sync, manually switching between WiFi and 3G, and lugging around the cables, adapters, and peripherals associated with a multitude of mobile gadgets. I believe that if a new entrant into the mobile technology landscape doesn't supersede the need for two or more of my existing devices then I often find a lack of its value-add.

As of today, I believe one of the most useful mobile devices to be the latest class of XScale-based smartphones (I particularly like the Treo 650/700 and latest HP iPAQ 6900).

They have days of battery life and can integrate all of the applications I use all the time: phone, voice mail, instant messaging, calendar, contacts, email, GPS, MP3, camera as well as viewing of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and PDF documents. Also, since they tend to be GSM devices they are nearly always connected to the Internet (across countries). My Smartphone has become my primary computing device.

The use of my laptop has dwindled since I have acquired and got accustomed to my Smartphone. However, I still find regular need for the laptop to:

  • Access certain web sites due to security, layout or active content limitations

  • Create or live sharing (through a projector, WebEx, Netmeeting, LiveMeeting, etc.) of Word, PowerPoint, PDF or Excel content

  • Run a limited set of applications that are not available on the Smartphone operating system (like the developer IDE / code compilers).

  • View content that simply cannot be displayed on the ~2.5", 240x240 (or 240x320) display (which I find to be only an occasional problem).


Also, an annoying but manageable limitation of the Smartphone is storage... you need to carry around a library of SD cards as a result.

This means I still use my laptop most days, but would be very happy not to lug it and associated cabling and peripherals if the means to do so existed. Especially, since for my usage the laptop has become my secondary device. I am hopeful, but it is still not yet possible for me to retire my laptop and Treo for my UMPC.

The key advantage of the UMPC is that they offer IA-architecture, and full scale Windows operating system in a compact form factor, so the main reasons I still turn on my laptop today goes away. Also, they have integrated hard-drive storage so I can toss my library of SD cards if I can eliminate the need for my Smartphone. UMPCs are also very effective mobile Internet access platforms when Internet connectivity is present.

However the first generation of UMPCs have some key limitations:

o Battery life. Most UMPC's are about 3-4 hours

o Ergonomics / peripherals for phone use. It doesn't make sense to put a device with a 7" display up to your ear and the use of Bluetooth headsets garners a mixed response.

o Connectivity. To-date most UMPC's lack integrated WiFi, GSM, and GPS radios which can be found in a number of Smartphones (like the HP iPAQ 6900).

So my "wish list" list for UMPC that would put it in the "game changing" mobile category from my point of view is:

o Get the battery life into the 7-10 hour range with ~4-5 hours of continuous use

o Keep the weight in the 1-2 lbs range and screen size 4-7"

o Deliver integrated stacks of Bluetooth, Wireless USB, WiFi, GSM, GPS, and eventually WiMax. Provide for dynamic switching between network transports for applications.

o Deliver physical and "virtual" (over wireless USB) docking stations so that when the need and opportunity arises I can dock the device to get power, a larger screen, a full-size keyboard & mouse as well as tie into incremental peripherals (like wired Ethernet, DVD drives, etc.)

o Deliver the integrated application stack I get in the Smartphone today along with the CPU horsepower that I need the laptop to run things like my development IDE / compiler.

o Deliver ergonomically sound peripherals (headsets, keyboards, cradles, handles/straps/stands, etc) which allow the UMPC to be effectively used on the plane, in the car, and on the lap for phone, messaging, entertainment and document review as well as creation.

Note: A sub-$500 price tag is not in my wish list as is often discussed in other forums as a barrier to UMPC adoption. If I can retire and eliminate future purchases of a laptop and Smartphone with the UMPC then it likely has a value greater than a few hundred dollars compared to the cost of purchasing each of those devices individually. This also does not include other integration opportunities like digital camera, MP3 player, portable DVD, and PSP, etc which can further increase UMPC value.

Finally, not only do I see the advantage of a UMPC that can replace my laptop and Smartphone as a measure of personal convenience/productivity, but also one which allows for IT environments and software ISV's to provide more common infrastructure and application support across their portfolios (as UMPC's are still fundamentally PCs).

I am interested in your thoughts regarding what it takes to deliver the next game changing breakthrough in terms of system and software architectures related to UMPC and other small-form factor mobile devices. And as always, I have equal interest in those that have worked well and those that were good ideas but ended up not having all the expected benefits when put into practical use.

Thanks for getting this far, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Joe
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