Can OQO Popularize the Ultra-PC?

Now that this start-up by Apple vets has gotten funding, can it bring its vision of modular computing to market?

Ever since I saw one of the first prototypes of an ultra-personal computer (UPC), also called a modular computer, nearly five years ago at IBM, Ive been a believer. The idea of a fully capable computer that can fit in your purse or shirt pocket was incredibly compelling to me after years of carrying luggable lap anchors.

Before Big Blue latched onto it, the concept was coined by Xybernaut, which built wearable computers it called the Xybernaut Transferable Core. This concept was based on the idea of a key core module that would contain all of the technology common to a laptop or desktop computer (processor, chipset, video, hard drive, memory); this module would then be inserted into a "carrier" that mapped to your usage pattern. For instance, if you wanted to work at your desk, you would put the core in a cradle (much like a little docking station) to assemble an ultra-small desktop computer. If you wanted a laptop, you would slip it into a laptop shell (screen, keyboard, battery and chassis); you would add a small display and a battery to make it a fully functional hand held computer.

I used to survey for this every year, and the response from businesses and individuals was always the same: Once they saw the prototypes, people said, "If you build it, I will buy it." In fact, it continues to enjoy the strongest potential demand of any product Ive had the good fortune to anticipate. Europe finally saw this concept become a product this year, courtesy of a company called Antelope Computers; the Antelope system is also being sold by IBM to the government (mostly military);field service; distribution; manufacturing; and some medical verticals. (As you would expect, given the robust needs of the initial target audience, this solution is far from inexpensive.)

There are a number of other companies on the UPC trail. They include Samsung (two designs are reported to be in the works); ThinkOutside (the folks who do a fantastic job with handheld computer keyboards); Vulcan Ventures (backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), Tiqit; and OQO.

With the exception of Samsung, which clearly has the resources to being a product to market, most of the others have been having some difficulty getting funding. Thats why the OQO news of a solid funding round is so important.

OQO is already the most promising of the startups, comprising a group that spun out of Apple and was credited with the creation of the Apple Titanium notebook computer (which some believe leads the segment in terms of industrial design). Of the designs Ive seen, OQOs is the smallest—and, as you might expect, the most-attractive. The group has also done a good job of learning from the mistakes made in the handheld market: It is focused solidly on standards (including wireless standards), so the device should be able to make use of existing PC peripherals. Like most of the devices in this class (with the exception of the Tiqit, which uses an AMD processor), the OQO is expected to use the Transmeta processor at launch, thanks to the extreme thermal and power advantages of this part.

OQO prototype systems are expected to use a very high resolution display and 1.8-inch drive from Toshiba. (Toshiba currently says its not planning to build a UPC itself, although I bet this stance will change quickly.) The display itself is impressive: It is viewable outdoors, relatively fast and sharp enough that you can put a full Windows UI on it and still read it. (If you are my age youll likely need your glasses, but it is amazingly legible.)

The one advantage these newer designs have over the initial IBM/Antelope products is the "core" also contains a display, input device and battery. This makes the "core" a fully functional handheld computer which can do everything from play movies to full PC games, to run Microsoft office or any other Windows application. Granted you wont be able to do engineering applications, like CAD, or play the games that require high end PC performance, there are limitations to what you can put into a hand held device, but you will be able to do much of what you currently can do in a laptop computer.

Eventually this class of computer is expected to run the Tablet PC version of Windows and be a formal part of that family. For now, however, it (along with Blade-based desktops) represents one of the likely futures of personal computing. And with OQO funded, it looks like we are one step closer to a future I, for one, can hardly wait for.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.