The UPCs Swiss Army Knife Approach Doesnt Compute

By Jim Louderback  |  Posted 2004-04-12

The UPCs Swiss Army Knife Approach Doesnt Compute

I see Robs fallen for the latest pretty girl to walk down the street.

In his column about the UPC, a new class of tiny yet powerful Windows-based portable computers, he waxes enthusiastic. According to Rob, these tiny and cramped devices are poised to steal market share, and ultimate market leadership, away from notebooks and PDAs.

I disagree. To start with, these UPCs are still halfway between usability and portability. Yes, they are small enough that you can carry them in a purse or briefcase more easily than todays wonderbrick notebooks from Dell and IBM. But they still dont deliver the ultimate of portability, where you stick it in your pocket and forget about it.

Rob thinks a high-resolution, 5-inch screen is good enough for reading long e-mails and documents. But on airplanes and trains, where many of these will be used, overhead lights and windows can turn a pretty screen into a faded dowager pretty quickly.

And Rob must have perfect vision, which is great for him. For the rest of us with glasses, contact lenses and astigmatisms, were looking for bigger, crisper screens, not smaller ones.

Rob also envisions a world where the UPC will replace both the handheld/PDA and the notebook. He points to stalled PDA sales as a reason why those devices are not living up to their promises.

But even if you adopt a UPC, you still arent getting rid of every other portable computing device. Look at that thing hanging out of your ear. Its connected to a computing device thats almost as powerful as a PDA, and is starting to replicate PDA-style organization functions. Its called a phone. And smart phones, or even the merely capable phones, are why PDA sales have stalled.

When it comes to unconscious portability, the phone wins out every time. My phone (much to my chagrin at times) is with me 100 percent of the time. The UPC is still too big to fit in my pocket, and still too expensive and fragile for me to tote around everywhere.

Next page: The whole concept is wrong.

Page Two

In addition, the form factor is all wrong. The keyboards are too small for touch typing, and too large for BlackBerry-style touch typing. The devices lack DVD drives, so you cant watch movies on them (unless you illegally break CSS). The screens, as I mentioned before, are too small for many visually challenged users. But the worst sin of all, especially for an ultraportable device, is the anemic battery life. Paul Allens FlipStart is expected to last only two hours, while the OQO expects just double that. A device that you expect to take with you everywhere ought to last at least through a single day without dying.

Finally, the whole concept of cramming everything into a single device is just wrong. Instead of comparing computers to cars—and a UPC to an SUV—its more appropriate to compare them to flatware. Computers have mutated from a single, expensive Swiss Army knife to smaller, less expensive forks, knives and spoons. I dont want one $1,200 device that does everything. Instead, give me a portable DVD/media player for music and movies, a smart phone with my calendar and address book, and an ultraslim tablet-sized notebook, like the Sharp MM20, with a big screen and full keyboard, but half as thick as a deck of cards. And give me a big, brawny desktop at home for games, data storage and the like.

Read PC Magazines review of the Sharp Actius MM20 here.

And finally, that brings me to cost. These all-in-one devices are full of limitations: no card slots, no DVD drives, no full-sized keyboards. Yet theyre just as expensive as a full-sized notebook. Here in the United States, we expect to get more for more. Only with phones—at least so far—does smaller translate into more expensive, and even thats changing. At $1,200 or so, UPCs are just too expensive and too limited in the long run.

Id rather have me an array of compatible devices instead of a single UPC. These new computers may do just about everything, but they dont do anything very well. And that translates into failure in my book.

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