Faced with shrinking budgets and increased demands for a growing portfolio of mobile devices that includes laptops and wireless devices such as smartphones and PDAs, enterprises are now more than ever looking for a complete mobile solution.
But what are the realistic chances of being able to standardize on a single, full-featured computer that serves all of the needs of a mobile workforce? Choosing which platform to adopt must be done carefully and without regard to the gadget fad of the moment. Few companies today can afford to support multiple platforms, with their attendant multiplicity of software licenses, support costs and development paths. And no decision-makers can afford to be called on the carpet by the CFO to explain why they invested six figures in mobile devices that either no longer fit their business requirements or, worse, are deplored by the remote workforce.
Meet the UPC
Three companies are introducing what are being called ultrapersonal computers. The name of this new category seems somewhat fluid, so for now we’ll call them UPCs. These are pocket-sized PCs that can be carried anywhere and can morph into different forms to match their environment. The burgeoning vendors of these devices are new on the scene, but they already have the enterprise sales pitch down pat: They all claim that the UPC will deliver increased ROI
in the form of faster deployment and lower soft-ware costs.
“Their biggest draw is their ability to run Windows XP as is and without any special customization for use on these smaller devices,” says analyst Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies (and a columnist with Mobile Enterprise). “PDAs and smartphones have to use software that, from an enterprise standpoint, is relatively limited, while a UPC can run the thousands of programs written for XP.”
While these include horizontally oriented CRM and office productivity applications, it also means that verticals, such as healthcare and pharmaceutical sales, that already have custom software in place can take immediate advantage of the UPC’s increased portability and flexibility. UPCs also come out-of-the-box with the same secure wireless connectivity available from any Windows laptop.
The vanguard vendors in this space, Antelope Technologies, OQO and Vulcan Ventures, each take a slightly different approach to solving the problem, but together they represent a potentially new category for computer hardware that has otherwise stagnated in recent years. Rather than reinvent the wheel, as earlier PDA and pen-based computers attempted to do, these vendors have downsized and modularized available components in order to achieve additional portability and flexibility.
Antelope sees the UPC as the heart of a modular computing environment. It’s modular computing core (MCC) was licensed from IBM and takes advantage of recent advances in miniaturization to squeeze a hard drive, a microprocessor, memory and a video chip into a block-like device not much larger than the average PDA. The company is building and partnering with third parties to create various shells that transform the device into such form factors as laptops, tablet computers, auto PCs and wearable PCs.
The MCC can dock with a cradle at the desktop for access to a full keyboard, a mouse and a monitor, along with any additional peripherals required. “We took the PC and turned it into a 3- by 5-inch card,” says Ken Geyer, president of Antelope. “Our little MCC can transform into whatever the user wants it to be—the shell changes but the computer stays the same.” Of course, this also means that a shell is absolutely required, as the external power supply, display and input/output connectors all exist outside the MCC. This contrasts with both OQO and Vulcan; their devices have everything needed for on-the-go computing. Geyer says it is technically possible to construct shells that mimic the appearance and functionality of both the OQO and Vulcan devices.
UPClose and Personal
OQO’s engineering team was behind the Apple Titanium PowerBook, but left Apple to push the limits of hardware design. OQO’s paperback-sized device can be used as a standalone and, instead of requiring a shell, includes a 5-inch-wide VGA (800 x 480) touchscreen display, stylus, thumb keyboard and thumbwheel. Wireless is integrated into the device in the form of 802.11b and Bluetooth. FireWire and USB 1.1 interfaces allow it to be used with desktop peripherals. The company also offers a unique docking cable, which provides support for 3D-accelerated, 1280 x 1024 video, additional USB and FireWire, RJ-45, Ethernet and audio-out support. “The standard we applied was that of a thin-and-light notebook in a pocketable form factor that was the size of the original PalmPilot and could be used all day,” says Jory Bell, CEO of OQO. “We also wanted a single device that could be used standalone or as a laptop or desktop.”
The FlipStart device comes from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures. Vulcan sees the UPC as a true alternative to existing handheld computers and has designed it to provide as complete a computing experience as possible, without the modular emphasis. The FlipStart has the most traditional design of the three UPCs, a clamshell configuration with a standard (albeit high resolution) 1024 x 600 display, an eraser-head pointing device and 802.11b/g wireless. Desktop connectivity comes in the form of a port replicator, an approach already familiar to notebook users.
It’s really the extras, however, that highlight Allen’s vision of mobile computing. The FlipStart includes an option for a secondary display embedded in the device’s lid, enabling access to e-mail, Outlook calendar and MP3 playback without having to wake the computer from sleep mode. The FlipStart also has a convenient scroll wheel on the side for navigation and includes a digital camera.
All three devices take advantage of the low-power consumption and reduced heat dissipation available with Transmeta processors and include the same Toshiba 1.8-inch hard drives found in Apple’s iPod. Still, battery life remains a concern as Windows XP is far less efficient than existing handheld operating systems. Manufacturer claims of battery life on the order of a full business day have yet to be tested.
Generally speaking, UPCs are light, ranging from 9 ounces to 1.4 pounds, and h ave high-resolution screens and disk drives ranging from 10 GB to 40 GB. So is the UPC just a really small computer or does it offer a true advantage over existing hardware architectures? “The big difference is that it takes major liberties in the area of screen size and, at this time, does not include a true touch-typing keyboard,” explains Bajarin. “Both OQO and Vulcan’s designs fit this profile today. However, some of the other devices I have seen in labs do have a folding keyboard and larger screens, so these types of devices will evolve over time.”
As always with small form factor devices, input remains a challenge. Antelope’s MCC is bundled with Pen&Internet’s ritePen natural handwriting recognition application, enabling it to be used
with the company’s riteForm recognition solution for processing handwritten forms on mobile devices.
OQO eschews handwriting recognition in favor of a thumb keyboard. Thumb keyboards have become quite popular in recent years, as they’ve seen use on devices such as Research In Motion’s BlackBerry.
Windows a Go-Go
UPC manufacturers are betting that the familiarity and application ubiquity offered by Windows XP will appeal to users. But haven’t Palm, Symbian and even Microsoft itself already invested millions in developing operating systems that are scaled for small devices?
Perhaps because the UPC represents an evolution of existing technology, rather than a revolution, analysts are unusually buoyant when discussing them. Bajarin expects the market to grow from 350,000 units sold in 2004 to 1.7 million by 2006.
Bajarin agrees that there is work to be done, but says the advantages of a single, familiar platform outweigh concerns over the user experience.
OQO’s Bell claims that market research led them away from handheld operating systems to Windows when the device was first prototyped. He notes that higher resolution screens have made the desktop metaphor more feasible; he believes Windows will evolve over time to be optimized for small screens.
Despite these projections, today’s UPC market represents a bit of an unknown for both major PC manufacturers and enterprise buyers. IBM could have brought its MCC to market itself and has publicly shown a variety of prototype devices. But, at least for now, Big Blue chose to license its technology instead. Bajarin notes: “All of the big players see these as a niche product, mostly aimed at vertical markets.” •
Lee Sherman is a freelance technology writer based in the Bay Area.