Small is beautiful

Small is beautiful

The noise surrounding ultramobile PCs (UMPCs) has been getting louder in recent months and there have been a number of items in the news recently that caught my attention. The first was a story announcing that the One Laptop Per Child's (OLPCs) chief technology officer, Mary Lou Jepsen, has quit the organisation to run a new commercial venture called Pixel Qi.

Where OLPC was formed with the laudable aim of building miniature low-cost laptops for children in developing nations, Pixel Qi will look to commercialise these technologies via a range of computers, mobile phones and other consumer electronic devices. This includes the development of a $US75 laptop, which seems like a tall order given that OLPCs $US100 laptops have suffered from spiralling costs recently and currently sell for about $US190.

While Jepsen will continue to work with OLPC, Intel has well and truly taken its chips home after just six months of collaboration. Hardly surprising when you consider that OLPC's original XO laptop is based on an AMD microprocessor and Intel has its own Classmate PC program. OLPC president, Walter Bender, was initially quoted as saying Intel's withdrawal would have "no impact" and accused the chipmaker of taking a "halfhearted" approach. You have to question the wisdom of a fledgling computer company kicking sand in Intel's face. However, OLPC chairman, Nicholas Negroponte, has since attempted to kiss and make up by insisting the organization would welcome Intel back with open arms. I bet it would.

Despite the public spat, XO and Classmate both have a lot of potential and these types of machine are soon likely to be aimed at younger school children in major markets as an introduction to computers.

Away from the classroom, Lenovo and Toshiba used Intel's booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month to unveil new 'mobile Internet devices'. With these boasting screens of about five inches, and Asus announcing it is making its Eee PC with 8-inch and 9-inch screens, the choices available to anybody thinking of buying a new small form factor 'computer' are fast becoming dizzying.

But although battle lines are being drawn by the vendors, many industry experts remain sceptical. UMPCs on offer today lack the necessary functionality required if they are to pose a serious threat to the traditional notebook market. Battery life issues, small screens and inconvenient keyboards are the most obvious problems. Battery life will improve over time but screen and keyboard limitations will be more difficult to solve without sacrificing the ultra-portability that is their main selling point.

Furthermore, an ever-growing number of people that need to do limited Webbrowsing or check their email on the fly are able to do so via smartphones. For these reasons alone, I think UMPCs will struggle to break out of the niche space they occupy today.

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