The mobile Internet device: In search of itself

Is the mobile Internet device as dead as the Netbook? No, but there's a long uphill climb before these gadgets find their natural market.

I suppose if I were just in search of controversy, I'd write a post to proclaim the death of the MID (mobile Internet device) category. My obituary for the Netbook earlier this week generated a ton of traffic; I suppose I could do that again. Certainly, the concept of a MID--a device midway in size and capability between smartphones and the smallest notebooks--is under tremendous pressure from both sides.

Customers have learned that with a well-engineered browser, the small displays on phones such as Apple's iPhone and T-Mobile's G1 "Google phone" are sufficient for most Internet applications (Web browsing, e-mail, chat, etc.). And as I described yesterday, small notebooks are quickly lifting themselves out of the "Netbook" ghetto, gaining performance and cutting power consumption to become reasonable alternatives for those times when a smartphone just isn't enough.

Fujitsu LifeBook U820
The tokidoki edition Fujitsu LifeBook U820 mini notebook. Fujitsu Computer Systems

But I think there's still a legitimate niche for MIDs and other miniature mobile PCs. As I've mentioned here before, I used to carry around a 1.5-pound computing gizmo along with a conventional laptop. It was an Apple Newton MessagePad 2100--officially a PDA, not a MID--but it was as close to a MID as the technology of the time allowed. It came with a Web browser, and for a while I had mine equipped with a Metricom Ricochet wireless modem, so I could access the Web and e-mail on the go.

It often seems to me that I would like to go back to that kind of device, rather than trying to make my iPhone and my laptop do the same jobs. In fact, I think my note-taking capability has actually declined with each new handheld platform I've adopted--the Newton was better than the Palm Treo, and the Treo was better than the iPhone. Today, when I attend conferences or want to scribble down some idea that can't be represented in a paragraph or two, I grab a Moleskine notebook (the pocket Sketchbook version).

My own experience is merely anecdotal evidence, however, and I know better than to rely on that. So what are the real markets for the MID?

Coincidentally, I think it works out to three E's: education, entertainment, and executive applications. All three areas lead to situations where a person might want access to more computing and communications resources than a smartphone can provide but won't necessarily want to carry around a notebook--or try to use one while standing--to get that.

The educational market for these small machines has yet to develop because current MIDs don't yet offer the right combination of small size, all-day battery life, and low price, but I believe they'll get there within the next year or so. People often talk about e-book readers as being the right answer for educational computing, but e-books are more about static content, and education is ideally an interactive process.

The entertainment focus was clearest with UMPCs (another dead category, though I'm hardly the first to point that out). UMPCs were marketed as "lifestyle" gizmos, as if many people were ever going to make a relatively bulky 7-inch display tablet PC with two-hour battery life part of their lifestyle. But in a smaller form factor--say a 5-inch display, a total weight under a pound, and battery life of at least five or six hours--a MID can fit this bill. As long as it's small enough (and rugged enough) to carry around in a purse or jacket pocket, and cheap enough to be written off to the entertainment budget like a Netflix subscription or a new TV, a MID could indeed become a lifestyle product.

The Viliv S5 Entertainment MID
The Viliv S5 Entertainment MID provides full PC compatibility in a PDA-size package. Yukyung Technologies

I saw a gizmo at CES that fit this definition pretty well, the Viliv S5 from Korean consumer-electronics maker Yukyung Technologies. Yukyung is one of many companies making portable video players, but its new offerings are quite distinctive.

The S5 is like a right-sized UMPC, with a 4.8-inch touch-screen display (800x480 or 1024x600 pixels, depending on model). It can play HD video, and it comes with Windows XP on a real hard disk, so there's no problem installing other software.

The S5's Intel Atom processor provides very good battery life: the company specifies six hours of movie playback. The device is about 6 x 3.3 x 1 inches in size--a lot smaller than my old Newton--and weighs less than 14 ounces.

There are also two 7-inch screen Viliv machines, the X70 slate-style tablet and the S7 convertible tablet. Both, amazingly, are still smaller than my old Newton.

Executives have always been the focus of some high-end handheld PC developers such as OQO, Sony, and Fujitsu.

Fujitsu didn't have any major updates to announce at CES for its LifeBook U820 series, though it was showing a model with case art from tokidoki, an Italian (but Japanese-inspired) lifestyle brand, and I got a chance to talk with a couple of PR people from Fujitsu about the U820 and other Fujitsu products.

The U820 is basically a complete convertible tablet PC squeezed into a 1.3-pound package: a 5.6-inch touch-screen LCD with 1,280x800-pixel resolution, a 1.6GHz Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, a 60GB or 120GB hard disk, Windows Vista Home Premium, and so on. It offers pretty much every kind of communication technology a person could ask for: Bluetooth, a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, optional AT&T wireless broadband, and even a GPS receiver.

From my perspective, the U820 is actually smaller than it needs to be, which is most apparent in the micro-sized keyboard, but it's an impressive technical accomplishment nonetheless.

For many people, the new Sony Vaio P-series (a CNET Best of CES award winner this year) may prove to be more practical, with its 87 percent-pitch keyboard and 8-inch widescreen LCD. But the Sony is beyond all but the largest pockets. Sony has made smaller machines in the past, such as the Vaio UX series, but these have been discontinued.

The OQO model 2+
The OQO model 2+ brings better performance at a lower price than earlier OQO models. OQO, Inc.

OQO also made a big splash at the show with its new model 2+, an unprepossessing name for a product even more technically impressive than Fujitsu's. The new OQO machine has almost all the features of the U820, but in a considerably smaller, lighter package. There are some differences; the model 2+ has a lower screen resolution (800x480) but is available with a faster CPU and more RAM. Also, the OQO is available with an OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display that really looks fantastic, with high contrast and deep saturated colors.

The model 2+ is in the same enclosure as the older OQO model 2, hence the trivial name tweak, but there's another big difference from that older product: the 2+ has a starting price of just $999, $500 less than the starting price of the 2. And the base model of the 2+ is a much better system than the high-end model 2 configuration was.

Just as there were some ARM-based Netbooks at CES, there were also some ARM-based MIDs on display. With no clear advantages over smartphones except for display size, I don't think these products will attract customers. But that problem is CPU-specific; it doesn't apply to the more powerful x86-based products.

So okay, there's some good MID hardware out there. Unfortunately, that isn't enough. What MIDs need are lower prices, more rugged designs, and some MID-optimized software. The fact that Windows runs on these small displays doesn't mean that style of user interface is right for them. I know people at Microsoft who are working on this aspect of the problem; I hope they get the chance to bring their solutions to market, ideally in the Windows 7 time frame.

All in all, there's a lot of interesting activity in these smaller form factors. I think these tiny machines face a long uphill struggle to gain market share, but at least they have a unique and clearly defined product concept: a PC in a pocket.

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