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The Pocket PC -- really

The physical attributes of mobile devices are particularly important to mobile road warriors. In this tip, Craig Mathias discusses the possibilities of having a fully functional PC but with a PDA form factor.

I have argued for some time that all PCs are essentially the same from the operating system (OS) (i.e., Windows) on up. What I mean by this is that the hardware exists primarily to run the OS, which provides a platform for all of the other software we want to use, mostly Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office, or so it seems. The hardware itself does allow a fair amount of variability with respect to performance and configurability, but always just in support of the OS.

There is one other element in hardware, though, that's particularly important to mobile computer users, and that's form factor. This aspect includes the physical attributes of the device. For desktops and servers, it's the size of the box, how it's mounted (for example, in a rack) and a related, but small, set of features. The degree of variability is, of course, much greater in mobile computers. We have notebooks in all shapes and sizes. We generally categorize these by screen size, with 12 and 15 inches as the mainstream choices, but the range is quite phenomenal, from tiny "notebooks" that even have 20-inch screens. To be fair, a notebook with a 20-inch screen isn't all that portable, but regardless, it runs all the same software as any other PC.

If you're looking for something really portable, though, the typical choice has been either a notebook (that no matter what size, is really too big to carry everywhere) or a personal digital assistant (PDA). The latter is problematic because PDAs don't run Windows, meaning one needs an entirely different set of applications and procedures to make it work. I've always found this more than annoying. Why Windows CE, or whatever Microsoft is calling it this week, is so different from Windows is a puzzlement. But all of this begs the question: why not just build a "real" PC into a PDA form factor?

Well, it's been done. But the result here is also problematic and certainly not for everyone. To be clear, we're talking a fully functional PC that runs Windows XP but fits into the palm of your hand. After many experiments along these lines, two firms have risen to the top. The first is OQO with its model 01+, which I've mentioned before, and the second is Sony Corp. with its new UX Micro PC. I've actually used OQO's model 01+, and I want one. Its recent price reduction (entry price around $1,200) makes it almost presentable to my chief financial officer (CFO), but not quite, since this wouldn't be my primary notebook. The core challenges with any computer in this form factor are screen size and keyboard size. Sure, the OQO model 01+ can dock with external peripherals, but that's not really the way I want to work. As a consequence, I'm not giving up my fairly small notebooks any time soon; larger screens and bigger keyboards are where my productivity comes from, not having a computer with me all the time.

I've not yet used the Sony UX Micro, but I like the cool looks: the 802.11a/g radio, the Intel processor and the fingerprint reader. It is, however, a bit more expensive than the OQO model 01+ at around $1,800. For the record, I want one of these, too. Both products have 512 MB of RAM, 30 GB hard drives -- very impressive considering how small they are -- and a variety of configurability and expansion options. I guess my biggest fear is that I might drop one of these, but that remains a concern with almost every mobile product.

I'm hoping to eventually do a more elaborate test of both models, but I remain intrigued with the possibilities here. Assuming component prices continue to fall, we could eventually see such products below $1,000. Would lower prices spur the market for micro PCs? Might we even see such functionality in a cell phone form factor? Will these become the PCs of choice for the youth market? Stay tuned.

About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.


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