Are UMPCs/Tablet PCs going to succeed?

With a week full of conferences behind us (MEDC(US), MIX07(US) and CeBIT(AU)) it is worth reflecting on a particular device that has got a fair bit of attention from the likes of Hugo, jkOnTheRun, GottaBeMobile and probably one of the best reviews done at The Gadgeteer, which is the OQO O2.

I must confess that although this device might look like every device-junkie’s dream come true I remain very skeptical around the form factor of this device.  I think have to agree with Wolfgang that at least the current breed of devices are so far from being ideal I don’t think I would recommend purchasing one.

Lets take the OQO for example – here is a device that doesn’t appear to be much larger than the JasJar and yet offers all the richness of a fully fledged laptop.  Is this form factor going to work? I think that despite Hugo’s attempt to convince us that he can get by an entire day using this device for blogging, doing email etc, I think that if you were to focus in on such a small screen for 8 hours a day, every day, your eyes would definitely complain.  Whilst this device is small enough to be easily carried between meetings, it is still heavy and bulky compared to a Windows Mobile pocket pc device.

But you might say that I should be comparing apples with apples – ie compare the OQO to UMPCs, Tablet PCs or Laptops.  Agreed, when put alongside those devices the form factor is quite compelling as it’s small enough to not take centre stage in a meeting (unlike laptops that act as a barrier between participants in a meeting). However I would imagine that even taking handwritten notes in a meeting would be quite a hassle given the small screen size.

One of the main reasons that there has been a lot of interest in UMPC devices in contrast to the new form factors of Windows Mobile devices is in my opinion to do with the operating system.  Unlike WM devices, both UMPCs and Tablet PCs run full versions of Windows.  This means that if you have an application that is written for Windows, even if it doesn’t have explicit Tablet PC support, it will still run on these devices.  This immediately makes them a more appealing option when an enterprise is looking at “going mobile” as they don’t need to reengineer any of their applications.

The downside of running a full version of Windows is that you need to have similar hardware to a laptop/desktop machine – typically 30-60Gb HDD, lots of RAM – both of which reduce the battery life of the device, implicitly making you less mobile.  Do we really need to carry around 30Gb of data when we are going into meetings?

In the second half of Wolfgang’s article he starts talking about Mobile Internet Devices (MID) – ie devices that are (nearly) always connected.  It appears that Intel are working on new processors and that there are devices in the pipeline that will not support a full Windows operating system.  Unfortunately this might leave Microsoft in a tight spot as Windows is inherently not modular (not to be confused with Windows CE which was designed to be modular). 

I think it has to be said though that the capabilities of a MID doesn’t go much beyond what a current Windows Mobile Pocket PC does today – I challenged Hugo after reading his article on using the OQO for a day to really sell me on where I would use an OQO in preference to my K-Jam!  All the hype around the iPhone is really just the cross section of the functionality offered by the Windows Mobile platform and Apples ability to fit a nice user experience (something which Microsoft is still struggling with).

Having used a laptop for doing all my development work for the last couple of years I’m not exactly sure what my ideal supplementary device would look like.  I was originally taken with the idea of a UMPC style device for going to meetings with but since using my K-Jam extensively for the last year or so I am starting to rethink my position on this.  Once mobile data becomes fix cost (similar to what has recently been announced in the UK) I suspect that I will use my K-Jam (or even my new HTC S710 smartphone) in meetings. Of course the last point worth mentioning is that Windows Mobile devices are a fraction of the price of a UMPC device – especially if you are looking at one with a solid state drive!

So, what does your ideal supplementary device look like?

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