(reprinted by permission from Amy Wohl’s Opinions, June 28, 2002. See the original article at http://www.wohl.com/wa0234.htm.)

Smaller Objects:  Shrinking The PC

Amidst the not-very-crowded or exciting (but very hot) floor of TECHXPO in New York City this week, and all of its accompanying showcases, demos, announcements, and briefings, one of the strongest drumbeats was around new form factors for computing devices.

On the theory that smaller is better, one could see mini-sized clamshell machines everywhere, ranging from lighter notebooks to bigger Blackberries.  Every business and consumer electronics vendor seemed to have some – NEC, HPQ, Sony, Toshiba, Sharp, Fujitsu – the list was endless. 

All seem to have three things in common:

1.      When you trade off size and weight for something you inevitably lose something in the ease of use.  This was reflected in miniaturized keyboards which varied from a little less convenient to downright useless and ingenious but sometimes downright weird mouse replacements (for me, the one that took the cake was the one that had a positioning button at the upper right margin of the keyboard and a pair of selection buttons at the upper left; it was touted as being convenient for one-handed use – not my hands, I think).   

2.      Screens could be brightly colored and quite sharp, but battery life (except for the units powered by the low-powered Transmeta chips) typically had much shorter life spans than users would prefer – 2 to 4 hours was typical, often in a battery-preserving mode that diminished display quality.  

3.      Prices are still much higher than for larger systems.  Vendors clearly think that we’ll pay a lot for low weight and convenience.

The height of the pricing ridiculousness, from my point of view, was a Transmeta-based little prototype, about 3 x 4” and less than an inch thick that was a full Windows XP, 256 Mb computer with a 10 GB Hard drive.  It has nearly every connector imaginable, including USB, Firewire, 802.11b and Bluetooth.  It’s called OQO (www.oqo.com) and it can work as a touch-screen based handheld or be plugged in to a notebook or desktop (they think of these as peripherals), with the full computer always with its user.  I thought of it as the first small, thick client.  The problem (for me) is the price, estimated at $1200-1500.  We’d guess it would have to come in below $1,000 to sell in any quantity.

Of course there were lots of others possibilities on display.  Flat was in, ranging from flat screens of every size (preferably large) for desktop systems and notebooks to tablet designs and hybrids which were both notepads AND tablets, with swiveling, dual purpose (keyboard to display, or write on tablet) screens.

Architectural variations were also on view – most of these mobile objects are designed to be used, as is the Palm, as satellites to a desktop or laptop computing environment, synching for storage and updated information.  A few, like the OQO assume you must have your entire (personal) computing environment with you all the time.  Others, like one of the Microsoft tablet designs, is really a kind of elaborate remote display – it is simply an accessory for a PC running applications somewhere else in its physical environment (Microsoft expects this to be in your home).

The message is that choices abound.  And that’s a good thing.