MIDs reach for the midway point

The Mobile Internet Device (MID) is arguably the most appropriately named piece of consumer electronics since the Sony Playstation. Ideally, a MID sits in the middle of two product ranges-mobile phones and PCs-and brings the best of both worlds to the middle.

The thing is, there is no pure definition of what a MID actually is other than the logical one: it's a mobile device with Internet connectivity. But then so is a smartphone. And so is a PC with a dongle or PCMCIA card provided by a wireless carrier. And so is a netbook. Who needs a MID?

"This is the unleashing of the Internet," said Pankaj Kedia, director of ecosystem programs for MID at Intel.

Since it's generally acknowledged Intel coined the term MID and built its Atom processor around the concept, the software giant is the logical choice when it comes to defining a MID. The thing is, even Intel can't nail it down to a single device because a MID is a beast of its own; a smarter smartphone, a fuller mobile entertainment player with Internet access and, of course, tapping the hottest market out there, a navigation device with real-time capabilities. Oh, and you have to throw in the computing capabilities of at least a PDA, if not something more powerful, complete with keyboard.

"We don't believe in a single converged all-you-can-do device. It's really about the right device for the right usage," Kedia said.

If push comes to shove, though, Intel might be a little more biased towards devices that get their Internet from WiFi or WiMAX where the company is vested in silicon. When it comes to 3G, Intel has thrown itself into the hands of Ericsson and British vendor Option.

"[Intel] has done a great job of pushing the market, expanding the boundaries and everything else and the processor is phenomenal," said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist for In-Stat, before uttering the big BUT ... "you have to remember one of the critical criteria is this thing has to be connected. Don't we need a cellular modem in these things? [Intel] is not really friends with a TI [Texas Instruments] or Broadcom or Qualcomm or Ma Bell."

McGregor, who practically inhales MIDs with every breath he takes, knows all the players without a scorecard and has developed his own list of priorities for the devices. Besides being connected, they must a high resolution graphical user interface and preferably all-day battery life.

"The other features could be anything," he said. "It depends on what you're going to do with it."

You're going to connect to the Internet and get an experience that mimics a desktop computer. You'll also carry it in your pocket like a mobile phone and look at graphics on a screen without squinting.

That "convergence of many types of capabilities, computing, telephony and consumer electronics into a single device" is what will drive a MID, said Seshu Madhavapeddy, general manager of the MIDs business unit for Texas Instruments. "A lot of people don't bundle telephony into the device and focus on other consumer electronics capabilities; that's a legitimate way of looking at it. There's also a big following that says if you want to unlock huge volumes you should add cell phone to the device as well."

Either way, there are size tradeoffs: cell phones need to be smaller; entertainment devices expand to provide a more comfortable viewing experience. That opens the possibility MIDs may actually be two different kinds of devices with two different purposes: business and entertainment.

"There's no question that there's a wider playing field now that we are able to address in the MID category," Madhavapeddy said.

That wider field is, conversely, squeezing down from two opposite ends: Smartphones and PCs and MIDs might not be the surviving products, said Mark Frankel, vice president of product management at Qualcomm, who seems to lean towards a smarter smartphone than a smaller PC.

"If I'm Joe Consumer ... I don't know why I want a five-inch Internet appliance that's thick, bulky, has a short battery life and I can't make a phone call," he said. "We view smartphones and the upper end of the smartphone range going from 3.5 inches or so to 5- and 6-inch displays that puts smartphone capability with the Web 2.0 full browser. The Internet capabilities that Intel has defined for the MID space are being absorbed into smartphones and smartphones have voice."

Even Intel seems to recognize voice will be a big piece of a MID. How that voice evolves and is integrated will determine how the product market proceeds. "Our play in this space is really the brain inside, the processor inside," Kedia said.

It's a given that there is, or will be, the necessary processing power and necessary power limits to make MIDs real. What's not a given is that there will be a market for the devices.  

"It really gets down to having the business model worked out for these devices. The most successful device right now is the netbook, which is a MID. It's not truly mobile but it's portable and it's focusing on Internet usage," McGregor said.