Origami UMPC begins difficult search for a market

The first generation of Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPC) recently debuted at the CeBIT show in Germany to mixed reviews.

After Bill Gates described his vision of a fully functional mobile PC with all-day battery life priced around US$500 at last year’s WinHEC conference, many were surprised to see Microsoft come to market with a device that’s not only bigger but more expensive and power-hungry than the software maker had hoped.

Stephen Baker, an NPD Group analyst, doesn’t see the devices having much mass appeal. “Prices are too high for the mass market, battery life isn’t sufficient and product definition is not sufficient,” he said.

“It’s a product in search of a solution. The hardware and software manufacturers have an idea, they have a form factor and components but they’re not really sure what they should do with this other than it’s ultra mobile.”

Microsoft recognizes that the initial target audience for the UMPC will be tech-enthused gadget fans, said Elliot Katz, senior product manager of Windows client at Microsoft Canada.

“This is version one. There are two main areas where we are going to see improvements: in battery life and weight,” said Katz.

“It’s really the holy grail that you’re chasing after when you want to extend the battery life but keep weight down. Those are key focus areas that we’re working on with our OEMs.”

Currently the battery on UMPC devices ranges from two to three and a half hours.

Samsung is one of the hardware manufacturers partnering with Microsoft in this market. The company is scheduled to be the first out the door in the U.S. with an ultra mobile device called Q1 due out in May. Although official pricing has not been released, some reports indicate the Q1 will be in the US$1,200 vicinity.

The device weighs 779 grams and includes a 7-inch 800-by-480 (Widescreen VGA) touchscreen display within its 22.7cm (wide) by 13.9cm(deep) by 2.45-2.65cm (thick) dimensions. The Q1 is powered by Intel’s ultra-low-voltage 900MHz Celeron M processor and comes with 512MB of memory and a 40GB hard disk drive.

The UMPCs will run on Windows XP Tablet PC edition with the addition of Microsoft’s new Touch Pack technology, which provides a number of interface features designed to make stylus or fingertip operation easier. The Touch Pack’s Program Launcher, said Katz, organizes icons and applications into categories using larger buttons to simplify the process of finding programs.

For connectivity, the Samsung Q1 has WiFi and Bluetooth built in along with wired 10/100 Ethernet.

Intel Canada country manager Doug Cooper said wireless connectivity is a big area of focus. “We’re aiming to improve wireless connectivity so it does become a connect anywhere anytime type of device,” he said. “Another target is to improve the amount of power consumption by a factor of 10 over the next two years.”

Cooper added that initial estimates for UMPC sales, in the early years, are a few hundred thousand units. “We think that over the decade it’ll be tens of millions of units. It’s not a PC desktop size market but it is a pretty good indication of the type of diversity that we’re seeing emerge in mobility,” he said.

“These fill a gap where the screen size is big enough to do serious business applications and yet the device is small, portable and connected enough for consumers to do the things they value from an entertainment perspective,” Cooper added.

Based on the vendors committed to the platform — Samsung, Asus and China’s Founder — Eddie Chan of IDC Canada said it will be a while until UMPC devices come north of the border. “ Realistically it will be a year before we see any rampup,” he said. “And keep in mind that tablets haven’t taken off the way Microsoft had hoped.”

According to IDC Canada, the ultra portable market (devices with a 12.1 inch display or less) made up seven percent of the market last year. Chan said leaders in this space continue to be Dell, HP, Toshiba and Lenovo.

Katz said the devices will initially be sold through the manufacturers’ Web sites but as UMPCs gain popularity and demand, “we’ll go through the channel.”

“From a channel perspective there is a vast array of things that can be added,” said Katz. “All of our standard developers and software partners that write for Windows XP have the ability to add new and great capabilities to it like GPS, new software to better handle and edit photos and various business capabilities.”

According to Baker, the products are being released prematurely. “This is very bad marketing from Intel and Microsoft to push something that isn’t really ready yet because it does leave open the possibility that bad reception is going to kill it and it’s probably not worthy of being killed,” he said.

When asked to comment on Q1, Samsung Canada made this statement:“The Q1 UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC) product announcement was made by Samsung’s Computer Division (out of Korea) at CEBIT. Samsung Electronics Canada is investigating how and if it will market the product in Canada. Currently, no formal Canadian launch date has been set.”

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