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In Search of a Form Factor

How best to bring the most computing power to the most people?

While I was being almost trampled to death by a horde of media people following the chancellor of Germany at the gigantic CeBIT exhibition in Hanover, I wondered if the computer industry was the only one that could make a public spectacle out of introducing a new form factor. Form factor?

A desktop personal computer–box, screen, keyboard–is a form factor. Other form factors are portable computers in various sizes: the PDA, the Tablet PC. Size and shape are the crucial elements of a form factor. They are complemented by weight, type of screen, and input method (keyboard, stylus). Choices in form factor run the gamut from massive to in-your-pocket, which is important for anyone who uses a computer. At CeBIT, Microsoft demonstrated its new form factor, the Ultramobile PC (UMPC), to Chancellor Merkel. I don’t think she understood its significance, but then she only has a Ph.D. in physics. Writing in various trade journals, a number of journalists and IT folks looked at the Ultramobile PC and didn’t like it, or expressed some variation of dismissal.

Since then not much has been heard about Origami (Microsoft’s code word for the new computer design). Like printed images on burning paper, Origami may be gone, burned to a carbon crisp by its critics. But we don’t get a new computer form factor very often, if indeed the Ultramobile PC can be called both a form factor and new. It’s worth considering a little more closely.

Just the Factors, Ma’am

At the time of CeBIT, Microsoft and prime partner, Intel, were most readily discussing the Ultramobile PC concept. A handful of other partners were showing prototypes. While the UMPC was treated as ‘big news’ in the computer world because it was the first time people could get their hands on it, this was less than an all-out launch. There were mixed signals, even from Microsoft and Intel. I’ll get back to that; for now I’ll assume the UMPC floated in and out of radar range so quickly that most people hardly noticed it.

So what is an Ultramobile PC? Take the last part first–it’s a personal computer, meaning a fully functional, multi-purpose computer. It runs all commonplace software, of course, most prominently Microsoft Windows and Office. By definition it is not a single-purpose device like an iPod or MP3 player and its success (or lack thereof) shouldn’t be compared to the reception garnered by that kind of gear.

The other part of the concept, ultra-mobile, implies that it’s a PC that can travel very easily, more easily than contemporary portable computers. That translates into smaller, thinner, lighter. Early implementations are about 9″ x 5.5″ x 1″ and weigh two pounds or less. It’s bigger than most PDAs but smaller than most portables. The distinguishing factor is the display, a touch-sensitive screen about 7″ on the diagonal. Variously called a dwarf or mini Tablet PC, the Ultramobile PC is obviously a pint-sized variant of Microsoft’s Tablet PC design.

Carping Critics

At this point, critics usually jump in with the observation that there is nothing new about the Ultramobile PC. As they say, some PDAs have had touchscreens and were nearly as big. The next comments tend to be that it’s just a Tablet PC Junior (which may remind a few people of IBM’s ignominious PC Junior). It’s true; the form factor is different but not new. If you’ve seen or used a Tablet PC, you pretty much know how an Ultramobile PC works–only it’s smaller and lighter.

Into this considerably smaller device, Microsoft and Intel specifications call for some serious feature-cram in a mix that’s left up to manufacturers: Celeron M or Pentium M CPU, 512MB-1GB RAM, 30-6GB hard drive, Ethernet 802.1 b/g, Wi-Fi, VoIP, Bluetooth, CF card, USB 2.0, SD card reader, webcam, speakers, GPS, keyboard option (USB or Bluetooth), touchscreen running MS Windows XP for Tablet PC…and more.

Looking at the first prototypes, critics immediately spotted missing features. Why no optical drive (CD or DVD)? Why only two or three hours of battery life?

The Great Compromise?

At the CeBIT introduction Microsoft and Intel wobbled between praising the prototypes and defending perceived limitations, e.g., “Our goal is 10 hours of battery life.” Among the mixed signals, I didn’t hear much about the fundamental design decisions behind this form factor. That was a shame, because a case can be made that a small tablet PC form might be the great compromise.

If the goal is a full-featured computer with lots of connectivity, which travels easily, then the traditional PDA fails because it is too small and the current portable computers and Tablet PCs are too big and heavy. The compromise is Ultramobile PC form factor–small enough to fit in purses and bags, big enough to contain the necessary features.

At least, that’s how the argument goes: The PDA and telephone handsets are too small to cram all the necessary features. Even if advances in technology and miniaturization make the small size possible, there is a fundamental problem–human limitation. We upright apes have big hands and fat fingers. Tiny keyboards give us fits, and big keyboards don’t fit in tiny computers. We also have poor eyesight. Even with artificial enhancement (glasses), tiny computer screens don’t present enough readable information to be very useful, especially compared to the vistas provided by 32-inch televisions, the daily newspaper, or even books. Despite heroic attempts of PDAs to overcome the limitations of small screens and keyboards, they have not achieved sustained usefulness and popularity.

On the other hand, the Tablet PC uses a stylus and handwriting for primary input. While not perfect, handwriting recognition has improved enough to be practical. With a screen approximately the same size as a standard portable computer, a Tablet PC is readable with normal eyesight. Unfortunately, the Tablet PC is a portable PC with a different kind of screen. It is big, heavy, and even more expensive than the average portable computer.

By demanding that the Ultramobile PC be similar to but smaller and lighter than a Tablet PC, Microsoft and Intel are forcing manufacturer’s to cut costs and get more into the device. It is a compromise form factor for a “real” computer they hope will be the most appropriate for anyone, anywhere.

In theory. Critics point out that current models are too expensive ($800-$1,000) and that important features are missing or poorly implemented. They’re right, and that’s why Microsoft and Intel keep talking about the “future Ultramobile PCs.” However, here is the real question: Is this the form factor that will bring computing power to the greatest number of people (mobile or otherwise)? It’s possible, and I wouldn’t dismiss it easily.

Nelson King writes Pursuits bimonthly for ComputerUser.

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