[AI] IS THERE HOPE FOR THE MOBILE INTERNET DEVICE?

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Mon Apr 12 04:00:11 EDT 2010


IS THERE HOPE FOR THE MOBILE INTERNET DEVICE? 

It's bigger than a smartphone and smaller than a netbook - and after that things
get tricky.  Matt Hamblem investigates the mysterious MID, a product in search
of a market

Is the mobile internet device (MID) dead on arrival?  Or has the MID - an
internet-connected device that's usually described as being bigger than a
smartphone and smaller than a netbook - just not caught on yet?

The answer to these questions is a bit complicated; it depends on whom you talk
to and how they define the category.  According to some, the MID is thriving.

Research firm Gartner considers Apple's iPhone and iPod touch to be MIDs, even
though the iPhone is more commonly called a smartphone.  Considering that these
Apple devices have been fabulously successful, selling 50 million units globally
in less than three years, the MID category looks rather healthy.  Gartner also
considers e-book readers such as Amazon's Kindle to be MIDs.

But other MIDs have struggled to carve out a niche in the mobile-device market,
and some, like the much-heralded OQO 2+, failed before they even got off the
ground.

MID ORIGINS, AND AN EARLY CASUALTY 

The term 'MID' has been around for at least five years, and was first
popularised by Intel.  The chip maker is heavily invested in the MID concept; it
showed off several prototype devices powered by its Atom processor in January at
the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2009.

During his CES keynote, Intel chairman Craig Barrett demoed the OQO model 2+, an
MID that was set to become available in the first half of 2009.  Featuring a 5
inches touchscreen and a slide-out 58-key physical keyboard, it would be based
on an Intel Atom CPU, up to 60GB of storage and Windows Vista or XP.

But it never happened.  OQO closed its doors earlier this year; the company's
website now talks up the OQO 2+ on one page and reports its own demise on
another.

Few people are willing to speculate on why OQO failed, but Gartner analyst Van
Baker has argued that the firm's devices came with physical keyboards that were
too small for users who wanted to type long documents.  And the device was
marketed as 'pocketable', but at 165mm on its longest side it was too big to
slide into most pockets.

It fell into what I call a dead zone, Baker said.  Devices with screens between
5 inches and 9 inches diagonally don't perform well in the market, he explained.

What's more, the ukp850 OQO was to come with a full-blown Windows operating
system (OS) in a small package.  Analysts believe this led some potential buyers
to realise they'd prefer a full-sized Windows laptop for that much money or
less, with a keyboard at least 90 percent of full size, not 25 percent.

Why would anybody spend hundreds more for OQO to do basically the same thing?
asked Jack Gold, principal analyst at J Gold Associates.  The OQO was a great
case of a product looking for a market.  Designers built it because they could.

DEFINING THE MID 

So just what is an MID, exactly?  Almost all analysts - and some mobile device
manufacturers - claim to detest the term, partly because there are so many
different variations within the product category.

It's fairly clear that an MID falls between smartphones and netbooks in size,
but some support voice while others support only data (which, to be fair, can
still be used to support VoIP).  A touchscreen is standard, but while some
devices rely on the screen for data entry, others also have a physical keyboard.
MIDs vary greatly in storage capacity, too.

Further muddying the waters, industry terms such as smartbook, internet tablet,
internet media tablet, pocket PC and ultramobile PC (or UMPC) are sometimes used
interchangeably with MID.

Intel foisted the MID acronym on the market, Baker said.  Gold, meanwhile,
called the MID a marketing gimmick designed to make the product set sound new
and different, when MIDs are primarily a variation on devices that are either
smaller or bigger.

According to Baker's definition of an MID, it should be pocketable, which
requires maximum dimensions of about 90x20x180mm - the majority would be
considerably smaller and thinner.  The screen would have to be between 3.5
inches and 5 inches.  Such devices would allow typing but not prolonged typing,
because of the size of their keyboards.  For this reason they would struggle to
compete with the larger netbook.

MIDS ON THEIR WAY 

Finland-based firm Elektrobit is touting a data-centric prototype MID that will
remain powered on and is pocketable.  Elektrobit draws the disctinction that an
MID is web first and voice second, while a smartphone switches these priorities
around.

In March, Samsung announced the Mondi MID.  Lesser-known players such as Viliv
in Korea and Aigo in China have also introduced MIDs of various sizes, while LG
has announced an MID to appear next year with the next generation of Intel's
Atom processor, codenamed Moorestown.  Intel is also backing a Linux-based OS
called Moblin that could be used with Moorestown chips in MIDs and netbooks.

Even Nokia, the world's largest mobile phone maker, makes mobile computers that
Gartner and others refer to as MIDs, such as the N97 and the ukp500 N900, with
its new Maemo browser.  Notably, the N900 runs on an ARM processor rather than
Intel's Atom chip.  (Gartner has declared ARM processors better than Atom for
powering smaller devices, at least in Atom's current iteration.)

Interestingly, Nokia says it doesn't sell MIDs, even though many Nokia customers
clearly see the N97 and forthcoming N900 as MID-type devices.  We don't make
MIDs, just mobile computers and smartphones, a Nokia spokesman said.  But
members of the Nokia N97 forum insist that the N97 is an MID - and a very
popular one to boot.  Nokia says about two million N97s have shipped.

WHO NEEDS AN MID? 

Clearly, Intel still believes there is a place for the MID.  A spokeswoman for
Intel said OQO's failure might have been linked to its market focus on business
users and students, whereas the real success of MIDs will instead lie with
mainstream consumers.

Will Stofega, an IDC analyst, agrees.  We look at the MID market as focused on
the consumer.  I don't think an enterprise-class MID fits, he said.  While the
acronym 'MID' has been around a while, the market for it is just forming,
Stofega added.

Intel's strategy for MIDs includes adding internet connectivity to
consumer-oriented handheld devices with some computing power, such as portable
media players, gaming consoles, GPS devices and e-book readers.  It's a
convergence, where consumer devices are becoming smarter and having more PC-like
performance, but are internet-connected, a company spokeswoman said.

A number of manufacturers besides Intel are buying into the consumer approach.
According to Gartner, Sony is planning to web-enable a broad range of consumer
electronics devices, which Gartner believes could be classified as MIDs.  The
brand-new Archos 5 media player/internet tablet is another consumer device
that's moving into MID territory.

The spread of faster mobile networks will increase the value of MIDs, which have
usually been connected to the web via Wi-Fi in the past, analysts have said.

Van Baker believes that the dream of connecting an array of consumer devices to
the internet will be achieved by some manufacturers fairly soon.  Sony, for
instance, plans to have 90 percent of its consumer electronics internet-enabled
by the end of 2010.  That's a pretty strong commitment, considering how enormous
Sony is in the consumer electronics field, he said.

At the same time, neither Baker nor his Gartner colleague Ken Dulaney believe
there's much of an MID market today for devices that are bigger than smartphones
like the iPhone.  Excluding Apple's iPhone and iPod touch, Baker estimated that
only a few million MIDs have shipped globally.

IDC said it is currently tabulating how many have shipped, but is not ready to
publish the results.

Dulaney said the more important question is how MIDs might eventually be
co-opted by smartphones such as the iPhone, which is supported by tens of
thousands of media-and data-centric - not necessarily voice-centric - apps.
Many people are saying they don't need an MID, [reasoning that] an iPhone is
smaller and does the job, he said.  Intel's vision of MIDs is flawed.

DOES THE NAME MATTER? 

To some extent, analysts say using the term MID is confusing for consumers, who
generally approach buying a computer with a strong conception of the required
size and weight and how they will use the device.  Mobility is crucial to nearly
everybody these days, and most buyers have a clear idea of whether they need
more of a media player or a device for email or texting.

Buyers don't care about the form factor's name and the standards it runs on,
Stofega said.  If they have a need, they buy it.

Axel Meyer, head of design for Nokia's N series, said the starting point for any
design is to understand how people live, what their needs are and how they
communicate, and to determine how these factors will be shaped over the next few
years.

Things have changed for designers in the past couple of years.  No longer do we
decide what people can do with their devices - in a way we only design part of
the product.  We leave them unfinished and the final design is done by the
people who use them.  They determine what they become and how they are used, he
concluded.



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