This Time It's Personal

— May 01, 2006

About five years ago I was up at an industry event at Microsoft and found myself at lunch with Bill Gates and a couple of other analysts, and the topic of the Tablet PC came up. At the time, the idea of the Tablet PC was just starting to get into Microsoft’s product plans. I asked Gates what his view was of mobile and wireless computing, and he reiterated a vision he has held for over 15 years. That computing is “access to information at your fingertips, anytime and anywhere you happen to be.”

If you have followed Gates’ musings, you know this aria is not new. But what was new at that lunch was his application of this vision to the Tablet PC. In essence, he told us that the Tablet PC was going to represent the future of personal portable computing. I have always thought that the Tablet PC itself was very good for vertical markets, but I have had serious questions about its ability to appeal to a broader mobile computing audience. Sure, tablet convertibles have gained some acceptance in non-vertical-market business applications, and even in some education markets, but it has not, nor do I think it will ever, become the predominant form factor for mainstream laptops.

However, Microsoft and Intel recently introduced a new iteration of the Tablet PC that they call the Ultra Mobile PC, or UMPC, and this form factor is probably more of what Gates was and is thinking about when he talks about the Tablet PC being the most important new product for mobile computing. From his and Microsoft’s viewpoint, it does two key things. First and foremost to Microsoft’s business, it puts a full version of the Windows Tablet PC OS in a handheld form factor that could be the first true Windows device a person may want to have with them at all times. And second, it extends the Tablet PC’s UI to this new mobile design and innovates around it with new types of software interfaces and applications.

And while the first generation of UMPCs, introduced at CeBIT this past March, will not gain a lot of ground outside of some initial vertical markets and early adopters, due to their $900 to $1,000 price tags, by the third generation they should be closer to the $500 or $600 mark and include Wi-Fi and WAN-based wireless, thus giving Gates the first truly mobile Windows platform that could, at least in theory, meet his vision of anywhere, anytime mobility.

Other critical factors for success will be screens that are very sharp and bright, as well as a battery that lasts at least five hours. Microsoft and its partners will also need to emphasize the device’s use as being not only for mainstream business markets but as an ideal platform for consumers as well, by delivering a no-compromise video and audio experience that lets it double as a personal entertainment device.

This consumer part is where it gets tricky. At the moment, Microsoft is still pushing its portable media players to consumers, but at $399 to $599, it eventually could bump into consumer versions of the UMPC. Actually, I expect Microsoft is already thinking of this dilemma and in the end would prefer to see a UMPC in everybody’s hand.

So, while Gates clearly believes that the Tablet PC is the future of mobile computing, I think he has always had something like the UMPC in mind and is perhaps now closer than ever to realizing his vision for information at your fingertips, anytime and anywhere you happen to be.

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