FEATURE: Inside Mobile & Wireless: Micro Portables

Micro Portables with Pervasive Wireless:
Adjunct or Primary Portable PC?

Just how small can you make a useful portable PC? Technology now exists that allow manufacturers to make a true Windows portable PC that can fit in your hand. Three manufacturers have made handheld full-function Windows notebook PCs with integrated keyboards: FlipStart 1.0; OQO model 2; and Sony UX.

Are these devices the next generation of notebook PCs?  Yes. Will these new micro portables replace traditional (larger) notebook PCs? No. Will these vendors sell millions of micro portable notebook PCs?  Eventually.

While these new small form factor micro portables will be the exclusive system used in a number of specific vertical markets, many of these diminutive systems will be secondary companion systems rather than the primary notebook PC for mobile business professionals. Here's why:

You have to hand it to the engineers who have created these new micro portable systems. They use a low-power Intel or VIA processor and a bright 4.5-5.6-inch display but include the functionality of their big siblings: they run all Windows applications including Microsoft Office. Each vendor is presently offering Windows XP or Vista.

What characterizes these new micro portables is their significantly smaller size and weight when compared to larger Ultra-portables that have 10 to 12-inch displays. They all weigh under two pounds.

They all incorporate a small display and built-in keyboard. While you can type on these systems, they are best used to do light Web surfing, short email replies and other applications in which typing is kept to a minimum. 

They all include a zoom function to allow easier readability, particularly for very small print. But when you are in zoom mode on the Sony UX, you can't enter data. They all include some form of cursor control via miniature trackpad (FlipStart) or trackstick (all three), but the trackstick in these units can be difficult to use because it is so sensitive to pressure by the finger that you often overshoot the place you want to put the cursor. 

While the micro portable isn't meant to be a cell phone, you can run Skype on them and make computer-based free calls to other Skype users or, using SkypeOut, to anyone in the world.

Integrated wireless communications is common to the micro portable segment.  Bluetooth, WiFi and wireless wide area networking are bundled into each of the three units: OQO has EV-DO, FlipStart has EV-DO Rev A and Sony UX has EDGE. By incorporating both WiFi and Wireless WAN, users can operate these systems whenever they are mobile during the day.

How does the micro portable compare to other wireless smart phones such as RIM BlackBerry, Nokia eSeries or Palm Treo? The primary difference is that the micro portable segment is heavier, presents itself physically in landscape mode and can run regular Windows applications. Thus, if there were a need for mobility in an organization and to run an existing Windows application that had been developed for a desktop or notebook PC, then these new micro portables provide an excellent solution. 

BlackBerry, eSeries and Treo units are fine for walk around message notification and reply, but they are not going to provide you with standard Microsoft Outlook (or Lotus Notes) to do full email, Windows compatibility or open and edit all the attachments to an email.

I see most of the micro portable units being sold into specific vertical markets in which value added resellers (VARs) add software and services to provide a defined solution to mobility.  Some executives will also use a micro portable as a secondary notebook PC in highly mobile situations.

FlipStart has a clamshell design and a summary display on the cover that keeps you updated on the status of email. It also works better on a desktop since its clamshell design operates more like a traditional notebook. FlipStart has the best keyboard and largest display (5.6", 1024x600) and has the fastest wireless communications with EV-DO Rev A. I just wish it were thinner and lighter. Shortcomings: 512MB of memory (which clearly should be increased to at least 1GB or more ASAP) and it needs to be thinner, lighter and provide a larger capacity disk drive.

OQO is lighter than FlipStart and Sony UX. The model 02 design is thin and elegant like something from Apple and the keyboard is designed for thumb-typing, "TouchScrollers" in the display are an innovative replacement to a scroll wheel. The display is 5-inch diagonal (800x480), with interpolated modes up to 1200x720. They also have a nice docking solution that provides a built-in optical drive and access to external keyboard, mouse and display. They offer a 60GB disk.

Sony has a very nice industrial design but the keyboard is very difficult to use (even with backlit keys) due to the lack of tactile feedback and the 4.5-inch display (1024x600) is very difficult to read. Plus, the relatively slow EDGE wireless broadband capability is a generation behind both FlipStart and OQO.

I expect each of these vendors plus a few others to refine future micro portable products to make them easier to use. I also expect to see a company such as Panasonic to produce a rugged micro portable. 

I see the market for micro portables growing from under 1 percent (<500K) units in 2007 to about 2 percent by 2010 or around 1.2 million units. There is some upside to this forecast if prices fall well below $1,000, more business professionals will use them in as secondary PCs in highly mobile situations.

The micro portables represent a new category in personal computing. Pervasive wireless communications makes them as functional as a notebook PC, but because of their small size and weight, they are as mobile as a handheld. It's exciting, but it's still just an emerging new market. 

J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D.
VP & Chief Analyst
Mobile & Wireless
Frost & Sullivan
[email protected]