Hanover (Germany) - When your competition has made a name for itself by standing up on stage and pulling the coolest new gadgets out of its jeans pocket or turtleneck sleeve, it’s difficult to generate a lot of buzz about a stack of new mobile hardware specifications. But Microsoft has at least made a valiant attempt, by having generated a lot of buzz about a fuzzy concept called "Origami," which culminated this morning into a perhaps even fuzzier concept called the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC).
Microsoft and Intel have jointly created this new platform category, with the intention of eking out a new market for themselves, someplace in-between the ultra-lightweight notebook PC and the PDA. Borrowing a little inspiration from Sony’s PlayStation Portable, the two companies decided to keep the screen relatively large - no larger than seven inches diagonally - and encourage engineers to place controls along the left and right sides of the landscape-oriented screen.
|Two samples of soon-to-ship UMPCs from Asus (top) and Samsung (bottom).|
But from there, a quick check of the 360-degree pictures Microsoft made available for two of the first models in the new class - whose availability TG Daily has been told to expect this month - makes it clear that the UMPC specifications aren’t designed to create a "trademark look," like an iPod for handheld tablet PCs. A child of five can draw an iPod. But as the pictures show, there are distinct differences in the control layouts for the demo models from Asus and Samsung - among them, rocker and pointer controls on opposite sides of units whose fold-out easel stands make them sit upright in one direction only. These differences begin to tell the story not of a well-targeted idea in consumer electronics, but more of a fishing expedition for something that works, that catches on.
Also, both the Asus and Samsung models are shown running a feature called the Program Launcher which, even if it looks almost too Sony-ish to be sporting a four-paned flag logo, is clearly a feature of Windows Vista. The dead giveaway here is the slightly tilted 3D angle of the window itself, suggesting a 3D rendering engine. But Vista, as everyone knows, isn’t ready for prime time, and won’t be until probably late September at the earliest ; until then, these systems will be running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005. Presumably, there will be an XP-based version of Program Launcher for users to hang onto, while they wait their Vista upgrades, as consumers probably should not expect to be running Vista CTP Betas on their new UMPCs.
Which brings up the next in a long line of unaddressed concerns : How will early UMPC adopters upgrade to Vista ? Will they have to purchase it retail, just like a regular PC user ? And when they do, the first question many will ask is the obvious one : Where will the CD go ? A UMPC can connect to a big PC via Bluetooth, WiFi, or Ethernet links ; but then, an upgrader would be forced to create an administrator/client relationship between the PC and the UMPC, in order to utilize the CD-ROM that’s attached to the PC, but also to implement the "Remote Installation" procedure necessary for one computer to install Windows for another computer. One alternative could be an attachable, portable CD, using a USB connection (Microsoft actually forgot to list USB among its connectivity options, although it mentions USB in passing with reference to an attachable keyboard). But then, with a CD and perhaps other devices dangling off the side of this unit, it no longer seems so "ultra-mobile," does it ?
Then there is the matter of the built-in hard drive : Granted, it has to be small and lightweight, to keep the system under the two-pound maximum. But will a 60 GB hard drive be capable of even holding Windows Vista, and still leave room for consumers’ applications and amusements ?
The other details released this morning continue to paint a fuzzy, indistinct picture of what a UMPC actually is, and perhaps some continuing disparity between Microsoft’s picture and Intel’s. Early details revealed to TG Daily had stated that Intel was steering toward a Pentium M ultra-low-power CPU driving a 915GMS chipset, as the UMPC’s hardware infrastructure. But Microsoft’s specifications present the first of many astonishing ambiguities, listing the CPU for the UMPC platform as the OEM’s choice of three : a Pentium M, a Celeron M, or a Via Technologies C7-M.
Including Via in this list certainly takes the UMPC out of the category of the test vehicle for Low Power on Intel Architecture (LPIA), which Intel continues to state publicly was one of its goals for UMPC to begin with. This morning, the initial pictures of UMPC prototypes on Intel’s Web sites continue to include concept designs from 2004, including a clamshell design that slides open to reveal a keyboard designed to be operated by dung beetles. The absence of more updated prototype designs, or pictures from the real units that Asus, Samsung, and presumably Founder Technologies will ship soon, seems to indicate that Intel is not on board with this project as it once was.
Another indication which lends evidence to this theory comes from Microsoft, which on its Web site this morning, took credit for the entire concept of UMPC. In a Q&A the company published with Bill Mitchell, vice president of the Windows Platform division, the "questioner" asks, "Why has Microsoft created the UMPC category ?" Mitchell’s response ties UMPC directly and entirely to an outgrowth of the Windows CE project : "Microsoft has researched the development of highly mobile, small form-factor PCs for a number of years," he responded, "because they are so well suited to addressing the evolving needs of consumers, whose lives are increasingly mobile. We began this work over a decade ago with some of the pioneering Windows CE efforts that I helped create. As people use PCs to stay in touch, work together, manage music, store pictures and build customer relationships, they need the freedom and flexibility that smaller, more lightweight PC designs such as the UMPC offer."
Elsewhere in the Q&A, Mitchell also mentions Via Technologies as one of UMPC’s CPU providers.
At the Intel Developers’ Forum in San Francisco, which concludes today, multiple sources told TG Daily that Intel has been gradually back-burnering its involvement with UMPC, and that the company had been communicating with Microsoft less and less in recent months, with regard to this and other projects. While Intel executive vice president Sean Maloney did do his part on Tuesday to reveal the UMPC, it was not - as some expected - the highlight of the program, being sidelined to make way for showcasing the company’s new Monahans platform for handheld devices, which features the XScale technology already introduced in PDAs, plus Intel’s new Wireless MMX connectivity.
The absence of a clear connectivity specification for UMPC is only made clearer when it’s situated on stage next to a Monahans prototype, designed to whet the appetites of future customers like Verizon Wireless, Cingular, and T-Mobile. As regular readers of Tom’s Networking know, WiFi specifications these days depend heavily on that little lower-case letter that falls after "802.11." So what little lower-case letter should we expect for UMPC ? Is it "n" or "g" or just "b" ? If Microsoft’s intention is to leave this for OEMs to decide, they may be setting the stage for one more platform bifurcation in the marketplace.
Also, the fact that there appears to be no specification for cellular connectivity, nor an interface for such connectivity on-screen (Microsoft’s UMPC front end is clearly just a "Program Launcher"), sends a signal that no one has decided how a UMPC is supposed to connect to the Internet in an "ultra-mobile" circumstance. In Intel’s usage case scenarios, released today, one example describes a family spending a weekend on the beach in Santa Barbara next to their UMPC, while another describes a busy mom using the built-in GPS to find her way around town. But with Microsoft’s specifications clearly omitting any reference to wireless or cellular connectivity outside of PC networking standards, and mentioning GPS as an optional afterthought ("Some UMPCs may include additional built-in features such as GPS..."), it begins to seem like history may be repeating itself again, with Microsoft demonstrating itself as the last company on Earth to discover connectivity.