FlipStart on Paul Allen's agenda for six years

Supercompact PC to ship later this month

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- The FlipStart clamshell supercompact PC announced today is a fourth-generation product from a team of designers who have worked regularly with Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp. and founder of Vulcan Portals Inc.

Allen was the one who pushed for the clamshell design from the start, said Dave Moore, senior director of products at Seattle-based FlipStart in comments at a conference here. FlipStart officials gave a preview of the product here Monday.

"We meet with Paul [Allen] on a regular basis, and the team has met with Paul every week for six years just about," Moore said.

"The clamshell design is Paul's vision, and it was his preference in the beginning," he said to IT managers at the Frost & Sullivan Mobile & Wireless Enterprise conference.

A clamshell style, similar to a laptop PC, protects the screen and the keyboard and doesn't require a special cover as a tablet model would, Moore said. "With a tablet, you're always worried about the screen. We looked at including a touch screen" but decided against it for several reasons, he said.

Touch-screen technology that is part of a tablet "wasn't a necessary requirement ... and doesn't work well with character recognition and handwriting on a small screen. Plus, it would have cost more," Moore said. But Moore said FlipStart Labs, a subsidiary of Allen's Vulcan Portals, plans to listen to customers and would remain open about including touch-screen technology in the future. By comparison, OQO Inc.'s ultramobile PC, a potential competitor to FlipStart, employs an active pen technology, as well as a keyboard that slides out.

FlipStart, which will ship later this month for $1,999, weighs 1.5 lb. with a 5.6-in. display. Moore said the designers looked at a smaller overall size and a smaller screen but ruled it out.

"I have to admit that the original design was for a smaller device," Moore said. "Early prototypes were too small for looking at attachments and ... to accommodate a rich Windows experience."

Allen's previous experience backing Metrocom, a metropolitan-area wireless service that has closed, helped drive his interest in making the FlipStart wirelessly capable, including for 802.11b/g and EV-DO Rev. A, Moore said. "We found we could get a Bluetooth antenna and Wi-Fi and wireless WAN internal to the device, and our solution works well," he said.

Moore said FlipStart is going to be in business for the long haul, offering support for its products and future products. He said the company will be targeting professional users in an international market.

Some IT professionals at the conference said they wondered how the FlipStart or other ultramobile PCs will be received, and who will be the target users. Moore said the FlipStart won't necessarily be sold at retail stores and would be targeted to professional workers, but left which category of professionals open-ended.

"We'll take product feedback, and we're serious about seeing this particular [ultramobile] category expand with a wide variety of choices," Moore said. "Nobody else is doing the clamshell, for example."

Moore acknowledged that the FlipStart may be viewed as "not perfect in every sense, since no product is." But whether users take the FlipStart as a companion to a full-size laptop while traveling or as a replacement "is all over the map." He said some users have "looked at it and don't like it, but then they use it."

Moore has noticed one advantage to the FlipStart over a laptop while traveling. The size of the FlipStart, even though it is a full PC running Windows Vista Business or Windows XP Pro, has helped him avoid the typical security screening at airports.

"The [Transportation Security Administration] doesn't want you to take it out of your bag, so the thing is convenient to travel with," he said. "They tell you to put it back in the bag."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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