SAN FRANCISCO—Intel is unfolding its plan to help create a new class of small and inexpensive mobile computers it calls “ultramobile PCs.”
The chip maker on March 7 said ultramobile PCs or UMPCs represent a category of computers, due this quarter, which will be handy for businesses whose workers shuffle packages or stock shelves. It is also made for young students or consumers who simply want to stay connected, view a movie or listen to music, but leave their laptops at home.
Thus, the ultramobile PC platform—an effort which Intel is working on in parallel with Microsoft—will serve as the hardware that underlies the new class of devices by granting a new hardware platform.
Microsoft, which has not announced its plans yet for the devices, but has teased interested parties with its so-called Origami project, is expected to provide the software interface for the new devices.
“The problem that the PC has had, even a notebook, is that its too large to carry with you” all the time, said Sean Maloney, general manager of Intels Mobility Group, in a keynote address at the companys spring Developer Forum, here, on March 7.
Indeed, “the opportunity is in the in-between,” said Mooly Eden, general manager of Intels Mobility Group, in an IDF session. “In the in-between theres the opportunity for a new category that will not necessarily … replace the cellular phone or replace the notebook.”
Therefore, the chip maker set out to create a platform which would allow smaller computers to still run full versions of operating systems such as Microsofts Windows XP.
The first such platform, set to be present in devices that come out this quarter, centers on a low-power Pentium M chip, which consumes about 5 watts of power.
But Intel has also been working with other hardware makers, such as companies who make GPS chips, to ensure that their products will work well with the platform, one Intel executive said.
The chip maker expects that the platform will assist in creating inexpensive, battery-powered UMPCs that allow users to connect to the Internet, check e-mail and even do things like make VOIP (voice-over-IP) phone calls, manage photos, listen to music and watch video.
UMPCs can be tailored to different markets, such as business workers, consumers and education, one area Intel said could benefit from an inexpensive, touch-screen-driven device.
Although Intel did not confirm it, the devices are targeted to sell for as little as $500 and to run for about eight hours on a single battery charge. The first UMPCs are expected to hit the market within weeks.
“Youre going to see a tremendous wave of experimentation in the next year and a half to two years” in UMPCs, Maloney said in his keynote.
To show how UMPCs might look, Intel revealed two concept devices at its IDF. One of the devices, described as a representation of the devices that will come out this quarter, features a 7-inch screen. It is about half-an-inch thick and weighs about two pounds. It has buttons on either side and appears to have a built-in GPS capability.
A second device, a hand-built prototype with a swing-out keyboard and a 5.5-inch screen, was constructed to show what UMPCs might look like in two to three years. It was roughly half the size of the first device.
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Not a Replacement for
The UMPC platform could be customized for different applications said Brad Graff, director of marketing for low power products in Intels Mobile Platforms Group in Beaverton, Ore.
It “runs the same OS and same software load as other clients do … with the same security and manageably” for corporate applications, he said. Given that, “Our customers are saying theres a lot of interest there.”
Thus, it follows that the machines could also be equipped to operate on networks such Wi-Fi and, later, WiMAX and third-generation cellular networks.
But the company doesnt want to assist in creating unwieldy devices that try to be all things to all users. The UMPC isnt being designed specifically to displace a device like a cellular phone or a music player. Nor does Intel expect the category to replace PCs, Graff said.
“If [customers] want a computer they buy a computer,” he said. “We believe that consumers want to buy devices that are optimized for their interests.”
For example, “We think theres a resonant amount of people who would get UMPC instead of [an in car] navigation system,” he said. Thats because a UMPC would cost about the same and offer greater functionality.
“If you [only] want to listen to music, buy an [Apple] iPod,” Graff said.
However, buyers that might want to have one device that can connect to the Internet, access e-mail, show videos, play music and even play games would be more likely to choose a UMPC, he said.
Although Graff declined to give exact pricing targets or discuss what role Microsoft might be playing in the design of the device, more details on the UMPC work being done by Intel and Microsoft—which has so far declined to comment on its Origami project—is likely to unfold later this week.
An Intel executive will give a keynote address at the CeBIT trade show in Hannover, Germany. During the speech, the chip maker is expected to offer much greater detail on its UMPC platform hardware. Microsoft may join the speech to detail its efforts, one person familiar with the plan said.
Microsoft, for its part, has been working to create a new category of devices it calls Lifestyle PCs. The machines, which appear to be the same as UMPCs and thus use the Intel platform, will aim to hit the sub-$1,000 mark and offer all-day battery life.
Origami, for its part, appears to be a shell that will run on top of Windows XP and give UMPC or Lifestyle PCs a more accessible interface for launching multimedia applications, according to several sources who discussed the platform with eWEEK.
Among those offering support for the UMPC platform on March 7 were companies such as Yahoo, AOL and Sling Media, who all provide content, as well as chip makers such as Marvell Technologies for features like wireless access.
Although, given that Windows can run on all x86 chips, the possibility remains for PC makers to pair Origami with Advanced Micro Devices or VIA Technologies chips as well.