Mobile
Commentary
4/30/2007
01:01 PM
Stephen Wellman
Stephen Wellman
Commentary
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Intel Hopes The UMPC Will Kill The Smartphone

The PC industry seems confused about the future of mobile computing. Notebooks are a mature device category but other new form factors haven't fared so well. Smartphones represent a strong growing market, but this sector is controlled by the wireless industry, i.e. carriers and handset makers, not traditional PC companies. PC companies have yet to really win in the smartphone arena -- though the iPhone promises to change that. Regardless, Intel is trying to push a new mobile form factor that it

The PC industry seems confused about the future of mobile computing. Notebooks are a mature device category but other new form factors haven't fared so well. Smartphones represent a strong growing market, but this sector is controlled by the wireless industry, i.e. carriers and handset makers, not traditional PC companies. PC companies have yet to really win in the smartphone arena -- though the iPhone promises to change that. Regardless, Intel is trying to push a new mobile form factor that it hopes can compete with the smartphone. Will their efforts flop?PC makers have largely been locked out of the mobile phone business, with a few exceptions like Microsoft's hard-earned though modest success with Windows Mobile. And even there, most Windows Mobile devices come from traditional handset makers, not the PC crowd.

In an attempt to capture the smartphone category, Intel is pushing the ultra-mobile PC (UMPC for short) along with WiMAX, a combination it hopes will fuel the next wave of mobile computing -- and create a wireless ecosystem that Intel will control.

Intel has high hopes for UMPCs:

Yet, mobile smart phones are precisely where Intel's eyes are trained. "When you look at the high end of the smart-phone category, that will likely get replaced by the UMPC," Chandrasekher said in comments after his keynote speech in Beijing.

A lot of dominoes will have to fall in the right places for that to happen: Intel will have to deliver its low-power chips, get its hardware partners to build compelling devices, convince developers to write software with a mobile experience in mind, and figure out a way to deliver an always-on Internet connection. And the final product has got to cost around $400.

UMPCs are designed to bridge the divide between the smartphone and the notebook, offering more mobility than a laptop and better data interaction than a smartphone.

HTC showed off one a UMPC last month in Orlando at CTIA:

Taiwan-based High Tech Computer, which has in the last two years moved beyond being a pure manufacturer of equipment for other companies to releasing devices under its own brand, debuted two interesting new devices: the Advantage and the Shift. The Shift isn't really a smartphone per se, but what's called an "ultra-mobile PC" (UMPC). About the size of a pair of CD jewel cases, the Shift has a tilt-up screen and a full laptop-style keyboard, plus multiple connectivity options, including GSM, Edge, UMTS, HSDPA, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

Rather than a conventional mobile operating system such as Windows Mobile or Symbian, the Shift runs the full Windows Vista Business. Whether professionals want to carry what's essentially a miniaturized laptop rather than a smartphone remains to be seen -- and High Tech Computer isn't saying what the price will be, though it will likely be close to $2,000.

Personally, I don't see the appeal of the UMPC. If I want a full PC experience, I'll use a notebook and if I am on the go, a smartphone is usually enough. The issue I had with the Shift when I had a chance to kick it around it at CTIA was that it didn't complete the function of a notebook or a smartphone as well as either device. I realize that's sort of the point, but it raises the question of the real value and differentiation for the UMPC.

Maybe it's too early for me to judge all UMPCs by the standards of an early-stage device. What do you think? Are you excited about the UMPC? Can Intel kill the smartphone with an army of UMPCs? Will WiMAX be enough to make the UMPC the next mobile computing platform? Or will the business market stick to smartphones and notebooks?

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