Origami UMPC begins difficult search for a market

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 1. 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 life on UMPC devices ranges from two hours 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 by 13.9cm by 2.45-2.65cm 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 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.

Lower power consumption
For connectivity, the Samsung Q1 has Wi-Fi 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.

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