Wireless DevicesTuesday, February 03, 2009
I have certainly written enough about wireless and wired broadband for awhile, the sad part to me is that logic is not a word that is used very often inside the beltway, so we will just have to see what will happen as the new administration moves forward. While I was focusing my writings on broadband, a lot more was going on in the industry, and this is only the start of 2009.
As we prepare for our Wireless Dinner, we are taking a look back at devices and services that started us on our way to a voice and data mobile world. Starting with RadioMail and moving forward, this review is an education in what worked and what didn’t. In the early days, dropped calls were a big voice issue, coverage was a big data issue, and yet those who recognized the productivity gains that could be realized continued to put up with these problems for many years. Even today there are coverage issues and some dropped calls, but they are not nearly as problematic as they were in those days.
Meanwhile, the iPhone continues to sell well, the apps store is full of applications, and others, including RIM, have opened their own application stores. Finally, the developers who are writing applications for these devices are making money. Now all that remains is to figure out how to make sure applications can be found and tested more easily, perhaps on a computer with a simulator, prior to downloading them to a phone. Rumors abound about a new, smaller iPhone, and I am sure there is a long roadmap for new iPhones and perhaps even embedded wireless modules in some of Apple’s notebook systems as well.
The smartphone segment of the wireless business is doing well, netbooks are beginning to show up in the market, and these will be followed by Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs). I have to say I am not a fan of netbooks at this point. Even the ones with built-in storage want me to rely on access to the Internet too often and for too much of what I want with me all of the time. But that is why there is such a variety of devices with more coming. Everyone has a preference for what to use and what to carry. Some of you may remember that the first netbooks were called Jupiter series notebooks and were based on the Windows CE operating system. Many companies entered this market and the idea was an instant-on, wired and wirelessly connected thin and light notebook with email and the basic applications needed to make this class of device the executive mobile device of choice. My newsletter in October 1998 featured a recap of these devices and why they would not become what Microsoft and many vendors including Compaq, HP, and others thought they would—a great new category of easy to carry and easy to use mobile devices.
There were a number of reasons these devices ended up failing in a period of less than a year. Some of them had to do with Windows CE, some had to do with the black and white screens that were difficult to read, the speed of the processor, lack of disk storage, and, of course, no one could meet the target price of under $500. Today’s netbooks have the speed, storage, and screen that were missing, and many have access to local and wide-area wireless, so will they be a success this time around? The jury will be out for awhile, but my bet is that they will stay a niche product rather than a mainstream product offering.
What about MIDs or UMPCs (ultra-Mobile PCs) as some call them, and what is the difference between a netbook and an MID anyhow? From what I have seen, the netbooks have solid state drives (some have hard drives) and are designed mostly for web browsing and cloud computing. Most weigh less than three pounds and have a notebook-like footprint although they are usually much thinner (one inch or less), and most are priced under $400 with many being less than $300. Most of them run the Intel Atom processor and come with Linux, although you can have Windows XP or even Vista installed on them. They are designed to be instant-on in many cases, but not with the Microsoft O/S, screen size varies from 8.5 inches up to about 10 inches, and the keyboards are, of course, smaller than those on the larger notebooks.
The name UMPC seems to be used for some netbooks as well as what I think of as a traditional UMPC, which is a full-blown laptop that has been shrunk in size. The screens are 5 inches or smaller, and the keyboards are even smaller than netbook keyboards, many of which don’t permit full QWERTY-style touch typing but rather seem to favor the hunt-and-peck user. Some are touch screens with on-screen keyboards. Using the LG XNote B831 as a representative sample of these devices, we find that it is powered by the Intel Atom, has a 4.8-inch 800x480 display, and both a keyboard and a touch screen. It comes with 1024 MB of RAM and a 40 GB hard drive, weighs in at 1.25 pounds, and measures 5.83 x 3.23 x 1.14 inches. It runs Windows Vista and has both Wi-Fi and HSDPA wide-area wireless built in. No battery life information is provided, but most of the UMPCs run anywhere from a claimed 3.2 hours up to about 6 hours. Several of the new models due out are claiming extended battery life.
As you can see, netbooks and UMPCs are two completely different types of computer devices and many have built-in wireless. The question in my mind is who will carry a netbook and who will to carry a UMPC. The UMPC market was basically invented by Intel, which seems to believe this will be the device of choice on WiMAX networks around the world, although so far I have yet to see a netbook or UMPC advertised with WiMAX embedded. Neither of these products fits what I want in the way of a mobile device.
So far, all of these devices (or 90% of them) are based on the Intel Atom processor and are being built by PC companies. One exception might be the LG unit mentioned above, but it also uses the Atom and has been built as a computer first with wireless added.
The next group of devices will come from the other side of the aisle, so to speak—the wireless companies. Many of them will be based on the Qualcomm SnapDragon processor and I am sure some will sport the Gobi wireless chipset that supports both CDMA/EV-DO and GSM/UMTS/HSPA. These will be the first wireless-centric devices with built-in computing capabilities, kind of like larger smartphones with more storage, larger screens, and, I suspect, better battery life. The netbook/UMPC world is getting crowded and will become even more crowded in the near future. I view these two categories to be like many others that have come and gone. The industry, in this case both industries, jump all over an idea for a new form factor and the research they buy helps convince them both types of devices will sell in the millions.
But research about future products and product demand is really only an educated guess at best. For many years, when I was serving on various PC companies’ mobile advisory boards, one of the questions we were always asked was how many of which category of notebook to build, and how we saw the categories taking shape. I have to admit that even among these groups of analysts and researchers, I don’t think we ever got it right.
My experience has shown that when forecasting product acceptance for a new category of products, even the best research is still only a guess, and for every research firm that is touting tremendous growth of netbooks and UMPCs, there is another that is more cautious. Further, there are many outside considerations, some of which cannot be foreseen by even the very best. For example, since the netbook and UMPC devices were first mentioned and work began on them, new smartphones have hit the market, most notably the iPhone, but others as well including the Instinct, Bold, Storm, and now PalmPre. All of these have more features and functions than devices that were in the market only a year or so ago, and many customers have already found that most of the time they can leave their notebook behind and still stay on top of their business while on the road. How will these new, smarter smartphones impact the market for netbooks and UMPCs? I am not sure any of us really knows for sure.
Today I carry two devices. One, of course is my BlackBerry Bold, and the other is a notebook with embedded EV-DO Rev A. I don’t usually carry my notebook on short trips since I can do what I need to do using my BlackBerry. However, when I do need to carry my notebook, it has been synchronized with my desktop so I have ALL of my files with me. Now the cloud computing advocates would tell me that all I have to do is to keep my data in the cloud in a secure location and I would be able to get to it regardless of the device I used. Others might recommend that I use GoToMyPC or some other product to be able to access my desktop and files.
I guess I have been around technology too long. I know that my DSL at home quits once in a while, sometimes a hotel’s Internet connection is down or its wireless access is really slow, and there are times when I am out of EV-DO coverage, so I want all of my files with me in case, at the worst possible moment, a network connection fails. I would not be comfortable putting together a PowerPoint presentation for a keynote address and having it in the cloud, only to find that I cannot get to it and I only have five minutes before my talk begins. But again, that is just me and my preference. Perhaps others will see these products differently.
One criterion I use to categorize a device is whether it is a conscious or unconscious-carry. Unconscious-carry devices are ones we don’t leave home without, including our smartphone, or any phone for that matter. A conscious-carry device is one that I look at as I leave my office and ask if I really need to take it with me. I believe, like myself, many people are leaving their conscious-carry devices at home or in their office more of the time.
My last comments about these two new categories have to do with what problems they would solve for me. Could I type faster on my UMPC than on my Bold? Probably. Since I don’t always carry a briefcase, where would I carry my UMPC, in my pocket? I don’t think so. Would it replace my BlackBerry for email, PIM, and document review? I doubt it. Could I write an article using a device with a small keyboard? I don’t think so. Perhaps I could make do with a netbook instead of my heavier notebook, but then I would not have all of my files with me and would have to trust the cloud or the idea that I would always have connectivity. I guess I have not yet reached that level of trust.
We will have to wait and see how these two new categories of devices fair in the market. At this point, I would have to say that there are a lot of bullish people out there counting on this next generation of devices. As for me, I am very much in the bear camp on this one.
Speaking about these new types of devices and, of course, the software that goes on them, if you have a new product or service that has been introduced into the market sometime during the past year, you should nominate it for the 2008 Andrew Seybold Choice Awards. It doesn’t cost anything and you won’t win if you don’t enter. Finalists will get some great publicity and all of the finalists will be invited to our 19th Annual Wireless Dinner in Las Vegas on April 1 where we will announce the recipients. But you need to enter soon. For more information, go to http://www.andrewseybold.com/ChoiceAwards.asp.
Andrew M. Seybold