I have had the privilege of working on portable computing projects with the likes of IBM, Dell, Compaq, HP, Toshiba and many others over the last 20 years. In the early days, portable computers basically came in two flavors: the original Osborne, Compaq and Kaypro, which looked more like sewing machine cases, and the clamshell, which was introduced by Toshiba and represents almost all of the laptops on the market today. One of the more important characteristics of these portables, however, was that they ran the same operating system and software applications as mainstream desktops.
As early as 1989, with the introduction of the Grid computer, a pen-based PC much like today’s tablet convertibles, and the Newton, the original PDA concept brought to market by Apple Computer, portable computing designs have been expanded and redefined. But with PDAs, and even the newer category of smartphones, these new mobile devices must use a streamlined OS in order to work efficiently. And though these operating systems have been embraced by some software developers, the majority of applications are still written for Windows.
With that in mind, a new category of mobile products has emerged called the ultra portable computer. The major backer of the UPC concept is Transmeta, which makes chips optimized for use in small devices; but since they are X86-based processors, they can allow these small handhelds to run Windows XP and its entire stable of applications. The first UPC to come to market is one from Antelope, and devices from OQO and Vulcan will be arriving this fall.
I have shown UPC devices to over 50 IT directors with charters to buy mobile devices, and all were impressed with what these products can do. They were especially thrilled that these handheld devices can run Windows XP and all the apps without any modifications—a sharp contrast to the issues they encountered when deploying Pocket PCs. A few of the IT directors told me that in order to get the Pocket PC to work with their corporate systems, they had to spend as much as three times the cost of the actual devices. But they also point out that running a full Windows app on a handheld with a 4.5- to 6-inch screen may be problematic for many of their users.
Still, this new category of mobile computing devices appears to have some legs, especially in vertical markets. All of the companies working on UPC products tell me they are seeing serious interest from IT managers in medical and pharmaceutical industries, as well as in retail, transportation and even government and military.
Of course, given the fact that these devices are quite small, actually running a major Windows application may seem tedious at best. But when I tried it out on the OQO and Vulcan devices, I was surprised to find that the apps were actually very functional, even with the constant scrolling needed to view a Web page or Office document. The fact that they can run Siebel, Peoplesoft or Oracle without any customization makes UPCs a category that needs to be watched closely.
In the end, I believe that the UPC has the potential to carve out its own niche in the world of mobility and could end up a viable category within the mobile computing firmament. •
Tim Bajarin is president of Creative Strategies, a Campbell, Calif.-based consultancy (www.creativestrategies.com).