Is there a teeny next-gen laptop in your future?

Is there a teeny next-gen laptop in your future?

An old business saying advises: "Find a need and fill it." That's the impulse behind a new group of mobile devices that, while having varying capabilities, have this in common: They are sized and priced between smart phones and traditional laptops.

In particular, many feel that smart phones are too small to comfortably browse the Web or write any but the shortest e-mail messages, while laptops are too expensive and too big.

"From a size perspective, there are laptops and there are mobile phones, and in between those two is a big question mark," said Bryan Ma, director of personal systems research for IDC. "Theoretically, there's a place for these devices."

However, Ma and other industry analysts use words like "theoretically" because, while the impulse leading to these new mobile devices is understandable, they question whether the devices solve the perceived problems well enough to be successful.

Within this group of new mobile devices are variations in terms of size, platform and target market. Here's how the experts handicap the various devices.

Smart phone supplements

Nokia's N800 Web Tablet and Palm's just-announced Foleo don't look anything alike, but they share the same mission and the same platform -- Linux.

"I'd call them special purpose machines," said Jack Gold, principal of J. Gold Associates.

In particular, they supplement smart phones, making mobile browsing and e-mail a more satisfactory experience for mobile users. The Nokia device, which connects via Wi-Fi, is not much bigger than a smart phone but has a much bigger display. The Foleo, which will be released later this year, looks like a small laptop with a keyboard and 10.2-inch display but has few built-in applications beyond those for e-mail and Web browsing. It connects to the Internet via a Bluetooth connection to a Treo.

"Physically, they're very different, but they both address the screen-size issue for mobile phones," Ma said. In other words, they're aimed at making it more comfortable to use the Web and e-mail while mobile.

Prognosis: Foleo hasn't been released, while the N800 has hasn't found traction in the marketplace. Yet, the long-term prognosis for both is poor, the analysts say.

"There's a market for consumers who want a better experience than you get on a smart phone but don't need all the functionality of a laptop," said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for NPD. "The problem is that the concept is ahead of where the market is now."

Ma said another problem facing both devices is explaining them to potential buyers.

"Both Foleo and N800 are very difficult to explain," Ma said. "You get five seconds to explain it to a consumer, so there's a huge education barrier that needs to be overcome."

Yet another problem is price, the analysts agreed. The Foleo will be US$500 after a rebate and the N800 retails for $400. That's a lot of money for average consumers who already have bought a smart phone.

Then there's the problem of "reverse convergence." Smart phones were designed to replace cell phones and PDAs with a single device. It will be difficult to convince users they now need another, bigger device to supplement their smart phone, the analysts noted.

The ultra-mobile PC and the teensy laptop

The ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) was devised by Microsoft, with help from Intel, as a new vehicle for its Windows operating system. It initially was designed solely as a touchscreen device, but some second generation UMPC products, such as Samsung's Q1 Ultra, now come with a keyboard. The Q1, the UMPC with the highest visibility, weighs about 1.5 pounds and has a seven-inch screen.

The FlipStart from Vulcan Portals is the prototypical teensy laptop. Aimed at business users, it has a 5.6-inch display, a keyboard for thumb-typing, weighs about 1.5 pounds and runs a full version of Windows. While Foleo and the N800 can be seen as supplementing smart phones, these devices aim to replace laptops for some users.

"The UMPC category goes after gadget geeks, and they want more features [than are found on smaller devices]," Ma said.

Prognosis: The analysts don't give this category much of a chance for broad acceptance.

"The price is so high and the functionality is limited," Ma said. The Q1 Ultra costs more than $1,000 and the FlipStart has a price tag of about $2,000.

Baker noted that the balance between size, price and functionality isn't right yet for these devices.

"What people want is an eight-inch screen in a five-inch form factor," he said. "You want something that's pocketable, something that's very mobile with lots of battery life."

However, since these devices won't fit in a pocket, users must carry them around in a case, just as they do with a laptop. That and the price makes these devices less than compelling for many users.

The tiny almost-laptops

This is the newest of the little laptop categories with products just being announced. None has yet been released.

Much of the recent energy for this class of devices comes from two Asian vendors. The first is Taiwanese chipset vendor Via Technologies, which announced in early June a reference design called NanoBook. It said several vendors will release versions of NanoBook, although a spokesperson for Via said there are no plans to release such a device in the U.S.

The Via device sports a seven-inch display, a full keyboard, a minimum of a 30GB hard drive and supports both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It will weigh less than two pounds and can work with Linux and Windows XP and Vista, the company said. Prices are expected to be in the range of $600.

Another Asian manufacturer, Asus, also introduced its Linux-based Eee PC (3ePC) in early June. This device is about the same size and weight as the NanoBook and has a seven-inch display. Most notably, though, the device is expected to cost as little as $200, Asus said at a recent trade show. The company said a version of the product may also be available with Windows. As with Nanobook, however, a spokesperson for Asus said the company currently has no plans to release the device in the U.S.

While more feature-rich, these devices are similar to the small, inexpensive Linux laptops aimed at children living in developing nations, the best known of which is called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Via has said it plans to aim versions of its device at both consumers and underprivileged children.

As with devices like OLPC, the Asus and Via devices use Linux to keep the price down. However, the analysts noted that they don't compete with larger, more expensive Linux-based laptops from vendors such as Dell Inc.

"Those laptops [from vendors such as Dell] aren't designed to be cheap," Baker said. "They're designed for tech-savvy users. They're a niche product."

Prognosis: All the analysts predicted little success -- in the U.S. -- for the little Linux almost-laptops aimed at consumers and business users.

"It won't happen in the U.S. until Linux is more consumer friendly," Baker said. "It still requires more user intervention than most people want. And, in the U.S., price isn't that much of an issue."

Gold said the devices would be equally unattractive for business users.

"If you're an enterprise user, if it's not compatible with everything you do with your infrastructure, it's just a toy," Gold said. "How do you do Outlook or Word documents? How does a big entity support a Linux device?"

Still, these little devices are likely to be more successful in niche markets such as education and in emerging countries that have an established middle class, the analysts said.

"In developing countries there's often a mass of consumers who aren't able to get Internet access and don't have the ability to have a PC in their home," Baker said. "There are lots of opportunities there."

Whatever their appearance and specs, these next-generation mobile devices are small and often powerful, the analysts agree. Yet, in developed markets such as North America and Western Europe, they fall between the cracks in terms of price and performance and won't be embraced by consumers any time soon, they say.

David Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

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