The More UMPCs Shrink, The More They Stay The Same - InformationWeek

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IoT
IoT
Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
6/5/2007
10:24 AM
David  DeJean
David DeJean
Commentary
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The More UMPCs Shrink, The More They Stay The Same

Ultra-mobile PCs are a category in search of a definition. Microsoft tried to nail it down last year with "Origami," a spec for a keyboardless device, that was pretty much laughed out of the park. But that didn't kill interest in small devices. And as today's introduction of a new "reference design" for a UMPC by VIA, the chipset and CPU maker, shows, while the devices are staying small, their usefulness is getting bigger.

Ultra-mobile PCs are a category in search of a definition. Microsoft tried to nail it down last year with "Origami," a spec for a keyboardless device, that was pretty much laughed out of the park. But that didn't kill interest in small devices. And as today's introduction of a new "reference design" for a UMPC by VIA, the chipset and CPU maker, shows, while the devices are staying small, their usefulness is getting bigger.Richard Brown, VIA Technologies' Director of International Marketing, spoke with me last week about what his company is calling the VIA NanoBook Ultra Mobile Device (UMD).

VIA's device is designed to be powered by the company's low-voltage 1.2GHz C7-M processor and delivers up to 5 hours of battery life. It runs either Microsoft Windows XP or Windows Vista Basic operating systems. The NanoBook is a conventional clamshell notebook PC design with a full QWERTY keyboard and a seven-inch WVGA screen, up to 1GB of DDR2 SDRAM, and a 30GB hard drive, and 802.11g WiFi, Bluetooth and Ethernet support, plus a DVI and two USB 2.0 ports -- all in a package that weighs 850 grams, 1.87 pounds.

There's also something the official press release describes as "a USB slot next to the screen that can be configured to include a World Time Clock, GPS, DVB receiver, VoIP, or even 3G/CDMA wireless broadband modules."




VIA's reference design for an ultra-mobile PC includes a slot next to the screen that can be filled with modules to add GPS, VoIP, or wireless broadband functionality to the device.

Click to Enlarge

VIA has supplied chipsets and CPUs to other UMPC makers (its C7 processor is used in Samsung's Q1B UMPC, and VIA chips power the OQO 02, which is finally beginning to ship after long delays.) The company has obviously learned from its experience.

There was the Origami fizzle. Brown admitted, "Intel and Microsoft made a bit of a mess in launching the form factor -- they overhyped it." But UMPCs are finally appearing that justify some of that early excitement. "The UMPC form factor is maturing," said Brown. "There are different types of devices and the manufacturers have learned what users need."

Like full keyboards, for one thing. And lower price points, for another. Brown agreed that these two factors have held back UMPCs. The OQO 02, which prices out in the $1,500-and-up range, will do well at the high end of the market for the professional user, said Brown, "but we think there's room in the market around the $600 price point for a UMPC with a full set of notebook features."

That's where the NanoBook comes in. It offers x86 computing, important because it supports familiar operating systems and applications. The form factor is familiar as well, and a full traditional keyboard is especially important for email and productivity applications: as Brown put it, "The x86 architecture make sense because there are so many people who do so much work on the Internet -- they'll stop off at a coffeeshop and connect to the Web."

And while the official VIA press release doesn't talk price (it says only ". . . targeted at aggressive consumer price points") Brown's $600 figure sounds good to me, and compares favorably to Palm's less functional $500 Foleo announced last week, for example.

The module slot sounds promising, too, because convergence is clearly going to drive UMPC adoption -- they'll have to combine PC and phone, at a minimum. Brown sees that happening: "Everybody is looking at mobility -- PC guys, mobile phone guys. Everybody is experimenting with the form factor."

When will we see a PC and phone in one device, then? Brown said, "It's a year away perhaps, but it's the next big trend."

The NanoBook UMD is a reference design, and Brown acknowledged the joke that "reference design" generally means something that will never make it to market. But in VIA's case things may be a little more promising. The NanoBook is being announced at a VIA meeting in Taipei tomorrow, and Brown says a couple of manufacturing partners will be introducing devices based on the reference design as early as next month in the United States: the VIA NanoBook UMD has been designed and manufactured in collaboration with First International Computer, Inc., and the reference design has also been adopted as the basis for the forthcoming EasyNote XS from Packard Bell.

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