UMPC: The Missing Link

UMPC2.jpgMichael Mace wrote a fantastic article about the mobile computing market. If you haven’t read it, you really need to read the entire article. I think he is on the money with his analysis and I quite literally could not have said it better.


The one thing he said that I disagree with is:

“Information manager [device] innovation has basically ground to a halt, and the users in this space are very frustrated.”

I agree that the users are frustrated. I don’t agree that innovation has ground to a halt. In fact, the information manager’s dream device is already out there.


Contradicting Microsoft
To prove my point I first need to contradict some of the things Microsoft has said. Mainly, they’ve insisted that the UMPC is not replacing laptops or PDAs, that it’s for a mysterious ‘new market.’ This was a really unfortunate statement because it sent all the reviewers on a bigfoot hunt for this previously undiscovered market. When they couldn’t find this magic market they responded negatively!

The fact of the matter is that the UMPC WILL replace laptops for some users and the UMPC WILL replace PDAs for others. In some cases it might replace both the user’s laptop AND PDA. The reason is simple. There are some things that laptops and PDAs are just not very good at.

PDAs Aren’t PCs
I LOVE PDAs (and by “PDA” I mean true PDAs and also devices like the Windows Mobile Smartphones.) These are fantastic devices. The one thing I see all the time though are people trying to get their PDA to work like a PC. I’m guessing that these people are the “Information Managers” Michael Mace mentions in his article.

These people really really REALLY want to have their PC with them all the time. They spend countless hours synching data, they buy complex and memory intensive programs to emulate database software, they purchase piles of memory cards to get more memory to hold their data!

How do I know? Well first off, as the guy who spent years answering the phones for a company (Ilium Software) that sells information management software for PDAs, I talked to these people time and time again. Second, I’M one of those people! My dream was my PC in my pocket ALL the time. For years my Pocket PC was the closest I could come. So, like all the other Information Managers, I made do.

Laptops Aren’t Really Portable
“Get a laptop,” people would tell me. I’ve got a laptop. A really nice one in fact. BUT, and I know some people will say I’m nuts, laptops aren’t really portable. They aren’t. Yes you can move them around and yes they are more portable than a desktop, but I’ll bet that almost anyone who has ever…

* Tried to get out and use a laptop in a coach seat on an airplane…
* Balanced a laptop on their lap while trying to drink coffee with a free hand…
* Tried to use a laptop while in the driver’s seat of a (PARKED) car…
* Tried to use a laptop while reclining on the sofa…
* Tried to use their laptop while standing around waiting for a bus…

…will admit that a laptop, even a small one, is just not that portable. It’s great when you need to move to a static location, setup at a table, and work for a couple hours. It’s excellent if you have a whole lot of typing to do, but when it comes to true portability the laptop doesn’t cut it. For one thing, the clamshell design makes it kind of clumsy. Plus, these days the demand for wide screen is making laptops bigger, not smaller!

So yes, a laptop gives me the POWER I (and other Information Managers) am looking for, but not the portability.

UMPCs to the Rescue!
So where do I get PC power with PDA portability? It seems obvious to me…the UMPC.

What it does better than my PDA:
*I don’t need special versions of software to use my data.
*I don’t need memory cards to get enough memory.
*The screen is big enough to see and manipulate the data I store on it!
*I have full access to all the software titles I use on my PC, never saying “I wish they’d make a PDA version!”
*I can read ebooks on it without squinting or zooming constantly!

What it does better than my laptop:
*It’s lighter.
*I can hold it with one hand and use it while sitting, standing, laying down, or even walking.
*I can carry it in just about any bag (although typically I just carry it around like a book). No more special computer bag draped around my neck.
*I can use it in confined spaces easily (cars, airplanes, etc.)

The Moral?
The moral of the story is that the UMPC is the Information Manager innovation that Michael Mace is looking for. It is also a device that WILL draw off both PDA and laptop users. Personally, I no longer use my laptop. For those occasions where I need the “laptop experience” I just plug in a mouse and a portable keyboard and I’m good to go. Even if I carried these all the time (which I don’t)ย they would still take less space than my laptop does.

As for a PDA, I have a Windows Mobile Smartphone, but the poor little thing no longer needs to live up to my overblown expectations of it’s capabilities. I keep a limited set of information on it for those occasions when I can’t bring my UMPC.

And finally, I KNOW the UMPC needs to improve. Battery life in particular stinks. Then again my first iPAQ only had a 45 minute battery life so I firmly believe that this is a temporary problem.

UMPCs are the new PDA. If anything, it’s smartphones that are the “new market.” UMPCs are just giving us the portable computing experience that PDAs always failed to deliver.

9 thoughts on “UMPC: The Missing Link

  1. Pingback: For Whom Does The UMPC Toll…? at Just Another Mobile Monday

  2. Brandon

    Very nice writeup…

    I think one of my biggest gripes (much as you mentioned) with PPCs is the complete lack of ability of these devices – especially Stupid/Smartphones. I really want a MOBILE computer with me all the time. But at the same time I want one in my pocket …

    The nice thing about my BlackJack is its considered “cool” by people and I don’t get laughed at by the guys I work with for being a geek. The bad thing about it is the complete inability of Pocket IE to render any web pages … if you’re not looking at a basic html page with limited images on it – don’t plan on looking!

    Anyway – as I said, nice write up. I guess the next chance I have I’ll be sure to check out a UMPC for my mobile needs. Here’s to hoping its what I’ve been missing.

    You guys fouldn’t happen to have a spare OQO2 laying around I could “borrow” would you? ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Marc Post author

    “You guys fouldn’t happen to have a spare OQO2 laying around I could “borrow” would you? ”

    I wish! ๐Ÿ™‚ The size of the OQO is really incredible. I’d love to get one myself!

    Also, the point about pricing made over at Just Another Mobile Monday was a good one that I missed. I think a $600-$800 price point would make a HUGE difference in sales for the UMPC (and is necessary in the long run.) Right now you can get a Tabletkiosk for $899 but other than the occasional referb on WOOT the $1000-$1400 price tag is still pretty high.

    Again though…I believe this is simply a “new technology” thing and that just as battery life will improve, prices will go down. Anyone else remember when people were paying $400-$600 for a non-connected Pocket PC?

  4. Galt

    hmm.. great post. I’m really thinking about the expectations I have put on my WM device (and the frustration that causes), I’m wondering if a UMPC wouldn’t be more appropriate, although I really really don’t want to have to carry multiple devices ever again. It’s interesting to watch these markets (“smart phones” and UMPCs) begin to intersect and overlap.

  5. Chris Dunphy

    I posted this in Michael Mace’s blog, in response to your comment there:

    “The only disagreement I have is in regards to Information Management devices. I think they have continued to evolve and that the uber-device for these users already exists. It’s the UMPC.”

    The UMPC may be it – someday.

    But it isn’t even close now.

    The price needs to be cut in half.
    It needs to go a few days (ideally a week) between charges.

    And most importantly – the UI is totally wrong and overly complex.

    We always used to point out that it would be easier for the PDA to evolve into the perfect information manager than it would be for the PC to shrink. But now that PDA’s have stopped evolving, maybe the UMPC has a chance.

    But for the time being – I’d much rather have a Tungsten X than any UMPC made today.

    – chris //

  6. Marc Post author

    I appreciate your input Chris. I really don’t agree with you though.

    “The price needs to be cut in half.”

    $450? $600? The iPhone is going to cost $499 and I’m betting it will sell. I agree that the price needs to go down but I think half is more than is needed (although I wouldn’t complain if I could get one for $400). Now it does sound like the UMPC isn’t right for you so for YOU to buy one I imagine it would have to be quite a bit less. If a device isn’t something you really want, then you’re less willing to pay for it. That’s normal.

    “It needs to go a few days (ideally a week) between charges”

    There isn’t a Pocket PC on the market that will do this with heavy use. Same with laptops. I’d LOVE to see this but I think saying the UMPC requires this to succeed is to set an unreasonable demand. Yes. Battery life is crappy but let’s look for realistic battery times.

    “And most importantly – the UI is totally wrong and overly complex.”

    It’s Windows XP. It’s the exact same OS millions of people sit down in front of every day of the week. Could the UI of Windows use an update? Sure. But one could argue that the UI is just as good as (or better than) Pocket PC since it doesn’t require the user to learn a new OS. And as a personal note, I find the UMPC XP easier than desktop because of the touch interface. I now tend to tap my monitor on my desktop all the time because I’m so used to that option on the UMPC.

    “But for the time being – I’d much rather have a Tungsten X than any UMPC made today.”

    It sounds like the Tungsten really fits your needs. It doesn’t fit mine though. Web surfing on a Tungsten is hugely unsatisfying. It won’t let me run my Access databases. It won’t run a large number of programs I like on my desktop. Memory is sorely limited. BUT…

    …it’s a great device at what IT does which is not the same thing as what the UMPC does.

    And that was the point in my post (and the point of Michael’s article in fact). Each market has different needs and different devices will serve those markets differently. For you, the Tungsten serves your needs. For me, it doesn’t. Fortunately for me, the UMPC exists!

  7. Doug

    Marc, I agree on the battery life issue. I use several mobile devices (phone, PPC, laptop, sometimes a separate MP3 player). None of them can go more than a few hours without a charge. Hck, my laptop gets charged at least twice a day. They really need to do something to make batteries smaller and longer lasting.


  8. Chris Dunphy

    To be clear, I do not own a UMPC or a Tungsten X. Neither comes close to meeting my current needs. There is no device on the market right now that does, sadly. A Treo 650 and a MacBook Pro are what I use for now…

    But – the “Information Manager” market segment that Michael and I researched when we worked together at Palm represents 12% of the population – and for most of those people a Tungsten X would come closer to satisfying their desires than any UMPC I have seen.

    But neither really nail it at all.

    The “ideal” information manager needs to be small enough and light enough that you can painlessly carry it with you all the time. The usage model is instant-on, enter a scrap of information, turn off. Instant on, look up some information, turn off. Lots of 3 second to 5 minute snips, mixed with some occasional hour-long reading/browsing times.

    Your Wallet application is an ideal app for information managers. An information-centric users would love to be able to reach in a pocket, pull out a device, look up a pin, and put the device away. Ideally the total time should take 5 seconds, and be one-handed.

    Windows XP on a UMPC does not embrace a super-simple data-lookup / data-entry UI at all.

    I hope to see the UMPC evolve – but for now it seems to have a very long way to go. But since PDA’s have stopped evolving, the market is wide open….

    – chris

  9. Doug

    I agree with most of what Chris has to say here. The only point I would add is that any device that is designed to be used in the way he describes must find a better way to input data. Onscreen keyboards simply do not cut it. Probably the best solution is the thumb keyboard, but even that is tough to use.


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