Mini-notebooks are here to stay

Some critics seem to think that UMPC (ultra mobile PCs) are just a fad. Wrong. They're here to stay.

In Ultraportable laptops: Their rise and possible fall, David Haskin reports that "While pundits and technology journalists have lavished attention on these products, skeptics have raised questions. For instance, is there anything really special about these devices, or do they just represent old technology in new packaging? Are users as enthusiastic about these tiny laptops as the pundits are? Will they fade away like so many other 'next big things?'"

Haskin goes on to report that Avi Greengart, mobile device research director at Current Analysis, for one, said that "It's way too early to talk about this being a viable product category."

Sorry, that's not the case.

I get that there's really nothing new about UMPCs. One of my all time favorite computer -- I went through three of them -- was the original Nec Ultralite in the late 1980s. It used, as I recall, a 8MHz 8086 variant chip, ran MS-DOS, had a 2MB (yes that's two, count em, two megabytes) silicon disk, a 2,400 baud modem, and weighted about 4 pounds.

It doesn't sound like much now, but at the time, it was about equal to today's Asus EEE 1000 or MSI Wind. So why do I think small laptops will take off this time if they haven't before?

One major plus is price. My first Nec Ultralite cost me $2,500. That was 1988 dollars. Today, a high-end UMPC will run me about $600; a low-end one will bit my wallet for $300.

Combine this with relatively high-speed 1.6GHz Intel Atom or 1.6Ghz Via C7-M, a decent-sized SSD (solid-state drives), and 802.11g Wi-Fi for connectivity, a 9-inch or so screen, and you have a very useful cheap laptop. On top of that you can run Linux on it, which will also save you money, or, if you insist XP Home SP3.

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The earlier small systems all had compromises. They were extremely expensive, like my Ultralite; had tiny, five-inch, screens; ran compromised desktop operating systems like Windows Mobile; or all three. Today's UMPCs, netbooks, mini-notebook, or whatever you want to call them are simply small, inexpensive laptops.

Last, but far from least, while I like UMPCs, the major OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) like them even more than I do.

At the recent LinuxWorld trade show in San Francisco, I chaired a panel on OEMs and desktop Linux. Among others, I had Jim Mann, an HP Technology Strategist; John Hull, Dell's Linux Engineering, Manager and Debra Kobs-Fortner, Lenovo's Director of Software Strategy. All of them agreed that UMPCs are not a fad. Instead, the consensus was that users seem to be adopting them as secondary computers. At first, vendors thought that these would be home computers. Asus believed, believe it or not, that they'd sell mostly to women in their 30s and 40s who stayed at home.

Instead, business users - many, many business users -- are the ones picking up the UMPCs. That's even better news from a Linux perspective since you can incorporate desktop Linux into even a Microsoft business network while you can't do that with XP Home.

No one saw this market exploding like it has, but the people investing hundreds of millions of dollars into UMPC production are now convinced that mini-notebooks are here to stay. That's one reason why you haven't see Dell's mini-notebook, the Dell Inspiron 910 yet. Dell wants to make sure that their entry into the market is a great one. You see, Dell, and the other major OEMs, have no doubt that the mini-notebook is here to stay.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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