Why Bill Gates is wrong about mobility

Microsoft is squandering its leadership on the UMPC, a platform with no future

Microsoft Corp.'s rich and famous chairman held forth at his annual CEO Summit this week on the future of mobility, among other things.

Gates predicted a common platform that will do it all: work, play, music, media and talk. "I tend to believe that the phone will move up and the PC will move down, and there won't be any special device categories," Gates said.

He made his point in the context of hawking new "palmtop" or ultramobile PC (UMPC) devices that are much bigger than old-school handhelds, but much smaller than conventional laptops or tablets.

I think Gates is dead wrong about all of this.

Instead of phones getting bigger and PCs getting smaller, phones will get smaller, and mobile PCs -- laptops and tablets -- will get bigger.

And the UMPC is dead in its crib.

Of course, there are few absolutes in technology, and the law of entropy applies. The number and types of mobile form factors will probably continue to rise, and gadgets will be available from the smallest clip-on iPod to the most gigantic Dell laptop and everything in between. But it's clear that for mainstream users, laptops and cell phones are moving apart, not together.

Here are three reasons why Gates is wrong about both mobile convergence and UMPCs:

1. Screen size increasingly determines the size of a device, not processing power. The clear trend in mobile phones and media players -- think Apple iPhone here -- is smaller devices with maximum screen size. We're heading for a device that's all screen, but very thin, light and most importantly, pocket-size. In the laptop space, screens are getting bigger. Moore's Law will be applied to thinner and lighter laptops, but with maximum screen sizes. Microsoft's own research has found that for both work and play, screen size rules. Larger screens boost both productivity and entertainment enjoyment.

2. The UMPC concept -- basically a Newton that runs Windows -- is hampered by the problems of a cell phone, combined with the limitations of a laptop. It's the worst of all possible sizes, and it will never go mainstream. These bulky devices have screens that are far smaller than a small laptop's -- already too small for productive work or enjoyable entertainment -- and at the same time are too large for a pocket. Microsoft is squandering its leadership on a platform with no future. It is leading a global charge by more than a dozen PC and consumer electronics companies down the UMPC road, which is a road to nowhere.

3. Gates bases his predictions on what needs to be sold today -- namely UMPCs -- rather than Microsoft's own breathtaking research. The company's R&D arm, for example, is working on a project called "Fone+" that enables cell phones to plug into giant TVs and together function like giant-screen TVs. Now that's a platform with a future.

So these three reasons are really one reason: Screen size rules.

Anything that's pocket-size, and that includes all devices usable as phones, will need to be as small as most current smart phones, but much thinner and with the maximum screen size possible on that small device. The majority of users will demand that anything too large for a pocket should also have maximum screen size, and that means laptops and tablets as thin and light as possible, but very large screens.

For reasons unknown (to me, at least), both Microsoft and Apple Inc. are pushing the idea that a single operating system -- Windows Vista on the one hand and OS X on the other -- will run on everything from big business computers to tiny cell phones. It's a nice vision, and good luck with it, Bill and Steve. But that doesn't top the list of what's important to real users.

With continued drops in the price of LCD and plasma technology, I believe the safe money is the divergence of all computing devices into three categories: desk or living room TVs and PCs, with screens in excess of 30 inches; laptop or tablets, with screens in excess of 20 inches, and pocket-size, with screens as large as tiny devices can support.

In other words, in a world where screens are cheap, everyone will want the largest display that their wall, entertainment center, desk or pocket will hold. There's not much room in this world for a small screen device that won't fit in your pocket.

Bill Gates: Spend more time with the innovators in your own lab and less time with the CEOs -- then come back and tell us about the future of mobility. Maybe then, you'll see the big picture.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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