There have been plenty of attempts to shrink the PC, the latest being Microsoft and Intel’s big plans to get the tiny touchscreen PCs they have named Ultra Mobile PCs into everyone’s hands.
Pankaj Kedia, Intel’s director of UMPC Ecosystem Enabling, expects in five years to be selling tens of millions of UMPCs, many of them to the 230m people who work standing up and use paper, pens and clipboards, or to students and schools.
Microsoft’s Origami pro-ject has been developing UMPCs and the first examples go on sale this week, with products from Samsung and TabletKiosk priced between £749 and £799.
While most small PCs, laptops and other handheld devices use cramped, scaled-down keyboards, UMPCs feature a touchscreen that users type directly on to.
Samsung’s Q1 has curved edges that make it comfortable to hold in both hands while users can type on the screen with their thumbs on a keyboard arranged in two clusters radiating up from the bottom corners. There is also the option of adding a USB or Bluetooth keyboard.
The crucial difference between UMPCs and PDAs, MP3 players, portable games consoles, a GPS navigator or any other handheld device is that UMPCs use Windows. But Microsoft has altered the interface and provided extra features to make it easier to use on a small screen, using fingers rather than a mouse. So the program launcher has buttons sized for fingers, the interface for Windows Media Player is simplified and there are larger scroll bars and window buttons.
Using familiar Windows applications is a big plus. Browse the internet over the Wi-Fi connection, and you are using a standard web browser, so sites do not need to be resized or simplified.
The 7-inch screen is big enough to show the average website or Word document, or to view a movie or a map. And while you would need to sit at a table and pull out a laptop to make a Skype call, with a UMPC users only need to stand still.
Next year, UMPCs will have mobile data connections built in, along with mobile TV reception and integrated GPS for navigation. Windows Vista will add more touch-friendly features, although Mr Kedia also talks of working with “other operating system vendors”.
It adds up to a different experience from using a small PC such as the OQO – but one problem is that there are not enough applications that work this way.
Another drawback for early adopters – Mr Kedia calls the first UMPCs “generation zero devices”, designed to get people thinking about the possibilities – is the short battery life. The first devices manage only two or three hours, though in two to four years Mr Kedia predicts 10 to 12 hours.
He also foresees even smaller UMPCs in future, tailored to different functions: “A 5-inch screen is ideal for watching a movie; for internet phone calls, instant messaging or chat 3-inch or 4-inch is a better choice.”
These smaller screens will need different interfaces, driven by gestures or, in three to five years, perhaps voice.
Another future option may be to have buttons to press that are embedded in the fabric of a protective case. Smart fabric manufacturer Eleksen is working on cases that double as controllers; they could even be electro-luminescent, so that buttons can be changed and perform different functions as users switch applications.
Existing ultra-light PCs such as Fujitsu’s touchscreen LifeBook P1510 and Motion Computing’s 8-inch LS8000 Tablet are more expensive than UMPCs, but have business features such as fingerprint sensors.
The LS8000 also has an active digitiser and a screen that is readable in bright sunlight. Nokia’s 770 Internet tablet is smaller and lighter, running a custom version of Linux.
But Mr Kedia does not want a UMPC to be thought of as a thinner, lighter tablet. “Users have to think of it as ‘my entertainment device’ or ‘my music device’ or ‘my internet device’.”
He wants to sell the experience – a device configured with services and software to do what you want – rather than the hardware.
That is going to need applications and services designed for use on the move, as well as better hardware. But if we get devices with the user interface, connectivity and long battery life, UMPCs could be the way to get information and entertainment on the move.