Check out this quote.
Checking out your favorite movie during a road trip. Downloading and listening to the latest hot tunes at the coffee shop. Surfing the Web at the beach while your friends surf the waves. More than ever before, people around the world are demanding simpler, more convenient ways to access and enjoy their favorite digital content while on the go.
Sounds like the iPad doesn’t it?
So was this quote about the iPad?
It was from March 2006, five years ago, before the iPhone, before the iPod touch and four years before the iPad.
The quote above was from Intel about the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC). Back then they also said:
The Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) addresses these needs with small, stylish products you can carry with you everywhere you go. The UMPC devices offer ultra-portable sizes and long battery life, plus full PC and Internet capabilities, so you can access your favorite web pages anytime, virtually anywhere!
I remember back then really liking the concept, so much so that I ordered the Sony VAIO UX1XN, which was a great little UMPC computer that fulfilled the dream
So what happened to the UMPC?
Well it wasn’t killed by the iPad, no it was well dead by the time Apple released that. No it was the netbook and more specifically the Asus EeePC. What happened was that when companies like Sony started releasing products like the UX1XN, and Samsung their Q1 they charged a premium price. The UMPC was not a cheap product, it was much more a luxury. The price did drop quite quickly.
When the Sony VAIO UX1XN was released in the UK it commanded a £2,000 price tag. This was a lot of money for a device the size of a PDA (even if it could run Windows Vista).
In July 2007 I noticed my local Sony Centre had reduced the price to £1,600. Still expensive, but 20% off is quite a reduction. Such reductions usually imply that a new model is just around the corner.
On Amazon in August 2007 you could get the UX1XN for just £1,199 which considering the features of the UX1XN (the cameras, flash hdd) makes the UX1XN seem like a reasonable proposition.
In October 2007 it was just £999 at the Sony story and only £899 on Amazon.
Today used models can be have for less than £500 on Amazon, which is the same price as an iPad!
So when the Asus EeePC was launched with a £200 price tag, the concept of the netbook was launched and the UMPC effectively died. Companies did try and compete by reducing prices, but in the end it was impossible to compete on features and low prices were what people looked at.
Pricing wasn’t the only flaw, there were some others. One of the main drawbacks was battery life, iPad users who probably don’t even worry about it today would gasp at the 1½-2 hour battery life with those UMPC devices. These weren’t devices you would use all day, much more a casual device that always needed to be close to it’s charger.
I remember taking the UX1XN to a conference in Cardiff and back then said
It’s small enough to be unintrusive, unlike a laptop which can be a bit of a barrier, it has two cameras which enable me to send images to Flickr or take short video clips, and the keyboard is usable unlike the fiddly mobile phone type split keyboard of the Q1 Ultra. You can also use it without needing to put it on the table or on your lap which makes it ideal in the conference hall or break-out room environment.
I wouldn’t want to write a long blog entry (like this one) on it, but for entering URLs or posting tweets or jaiku postings, I think it will work just fine.
A big flaw for me was the operating system, Windows Vista was rather too bloated for a device which lacked the power and memory of standard desktops and laptops. This would eventually be solved with Windows 7, but by that time the UMPC was just a distant memory. Microsoft really needed to do what Apple and Google have done and create a completely new OS that works on new formats for devices, but that wasn’t going to happen at that time.
Another problem were the touch screens, whereas big Tablet PCs required a dedicated stylus, the UMPC often resorted to a simple touch screen. However with an OS that really didn’t work with touch and needed a stylus, too often you found that neither worked satisfactorily and the experience was not nice.
However many people like me, saw that these early products, though expensive and having some flaws, they really demonstrated the potential of small mobile computers, something we now see in Apple’s iPad and Android tablets. Looking back at the UMPC we can see what worked and what didn’t, as a result when something like the iPad comes along that solves many of the flaws, price, battery life and OS, but still has the the main features of the UMPS, such as solid state drives (SSD), cameras, touch screens. You start to realise the influence of these devices on companies such as Apple and Google.
Many people see the iPad as Apple’s response to the netbook, I don’t, I think Apple looked at the original UMPC concept from Intel and went, “we can do that, and we can do that better!”