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July 2003

Dispatches

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Evolutionary or Revolutionary?

The portable computer continues to follow its Darwinian path toward true functionality.

By Tim Bajarin



If you have followed the personal computing industry from its early days, you know that the meaning and definition of portable computing has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. In those early days, portable computing was defined by transportables—machines like the original Osborne and Compaq that debuted in the early 1980s and weighed 35-plus pounds. I remember lugging my first Compaq onto planes back then and struggling to try and get it into an overhead bin. But by the mid 1980s, the clamshell style of portable computers arrived with the first truly portable PC, manufactured by Gavilan Computers. It weighed in at a hefty 15 or so pounds and never took off for a host of reasons. In the end, it was Toshiba that created what most of us analysts consider the first real laptop computer.

The Toshiba T1000 debuted at a large computer show in Hanover, Germany, in 1986 and went on to become a big hit. The T1000’s success forced all other portable computer vendors to follow Toshiba’s lead and soon Compaq, IBM and HP were slugging it out with Toshiba for portable computer supremacy with similar laptop designs. During those early days there were a few fleeting attempts to create portable computers from the likes of Tandy and Sinclair, but their portables used proprietary operating systems and didn’t catch on in the mainstream. It took the Toshiba T1000 and the others running MS DOS to launch the portable computing revolution. Some 20 years later, thanks to colorful, bright, TFT LCD screens, lithium-ion batteries and a multitude of other technologies like the Pentium mobile processors, laptops are selling like hotcakes and represent the only segment of the PC industry with continuous, healthy growth.

During those 20 years, however, laptop computers became ensnarled in the clamshell design, a knot that only now, with the introduction of the Tablet PC, is starting to unwind. New, radical designs and mobile computing concepts are finally beginning to enhance the world of portable computing. Much has already been written about the Tablet PC, so I won’t elaborate on this new form factor other then to say I believe the convertible designs, such as the ones coming from Toshiba and Acer, have the potential of bringing the Tablet PC to mainstream portable computing.

Two New Designs

But there are two other mobile computing designs and concepts emerging that I consider quite important to the future of mobile computing, both of which represent potentially powerful new mobile computing paradigms for the enterprise, and especially business workers in the sales and field force arena.

The first concept is being pioneered by Sharp with its new Actius MM10. The MM10 breaks new ground in the ultralight category because it weighs in at 2.2 pounds and is the smallest fully functional laptop with a 95-percent keyboard and 10.4-inch TFT screen. The keyboard does have some quirks, especially the size of the right shift key as well as the smaller keys, which makes fast touch typing a challenge at best. But Sharp accomplished something quite unique with this machine by treating it is as a second laptop that basically mirrors the desktop or a heavier laptop. The idea was to create a device so light you won’t hesitate to take it with you whenever you leave the office.

Sharp calls it grab-and-go computing because the Actius comes with an actual docking system that, when plugged in, synchronizes the main computer with the MM10 so files are always in sync and up to date. The sync software comes from Iomega. The docking process is similar to syncing a Palm or Pocket PC with a desktop. The product would be even better if it also automatically synced up Outlook or Notes, but Sharp still earns an A in my book for being one of the first to see that a smaller and lighter laptop with Windows XP functionality is an important advance in true mobility, because it allows users to take a laptop with them without compromising on their OS or data while away from the office.

This makes the Actius MM10 a great tool for sales or field force personnel who need a full Windows XP-based portable with them at all times, but hate lugging around a larger laptop when on the road. Keep in mind that it is not designed to be a primary computer. Think of it as a back-up computer that lets you take your files with you on the road and yet work with them via a fully functional laptop with no real trade-off other than the slightly smaller keyboard. Since it has built-in 802.11b wireless capability, as well as an Ethernet port, you can connect to the Internet or a VPN and be on the network with ease. It does not come with a built-in modem, but Sharp does include a 56K PC Card modem so you can even connect via old-fashioned phone lines if necessary. It also sports a speedy Transmeta Crusoe processor and lists for under $1,400.

XP in Your Palm

The other device is being called a Handheld XP computer. Although handheld computers like the ones from Palm and Microsoft’s Pocket PC family are great tools that can work with enterprise applications, they are based on cut-down operating systems that have limited functionality. For an enterprise application to work on them, the apps have to be seriously modified around the form and function of the handheld OS. But a handheld XP system can take any Windows XP app and run it out of the box, as is. This concept is quite appealing to traditional IT managers who have to outfit their sales and field forces with handheld devices based on Windows XP. One of the bigger proponents of this concept is Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, whose Vulcan Ventures is funding a company that will have a product in this category later this year. And OQO and Tiquit, along with Antelope (an IBM spinoff) will have systems encompassing handheld XP this fall as well.

Although these new devices will not break ground with their designs and screens smaller than traditional laptops or Table PCs, they do have the added advantage of being full Windows XP systems. Their ability to be able to use tens of thousands of XP applications right from the start could deliver them a serious enterprise audience in their own right.

Now that we have entered a new century, it is time to start thinking about mobile computing in a completely new light. Thanks to new technologies and innovative thinkers, products like the Tablet PC, grab-and-go computers and handheld XP devices have the potential to redefine portable computing over the next few years.

Tim Bajarin is president of Creative Strategies (www.creativestrategies.com), a technology consulting and research company based in Campbell, Calif.

Copyright 2004 Leisure Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
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