IF A VOICE-CENTRIC HANDSET anchors the left end of an imaginary arc and a wired PC anchors the right end, the middle is increasingly populated by mobile Internet devices, ultra-mobile personal computers, netbooks and e-mail-only devices.
And there’s more to come on form and function in the vast middle ground. Netbooks with touchscreens, powered possibly by Palm Inc.’s new OS, may well grab the spotlight at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, according to Internet chatter.
Some devices – think of the leading smartphones – are packing functionality akin to the proverbial Swiss Army knife, others tout a single-purpose functionality that implies a world of multiple-device-toting minions.
How to think about these mobile goodies and the burgeoning market for them?
Analysts themselves have had to work on that question.
“How we cover these devices internally at In-Stat has been an issue,” said analyst Bill Hughes, with a chuckle.
He offered a glimpse at how In-Stat is handling the devices and their coverage, but cautioned it was “a living document.”
“Device Boundaries are Blurring,” states In-Stat’s PowerPoint deck, prepared for its clients. Voice/SMS, computing and entertainment are the content drivers and UMPCs, MIDs, PNDs, PMPs appear in a diagram with so many overlapping spheres of influence it could be an ancient Celtic symbol.
Defining the genres
The nitty-gritty, in short, according to In-Stat’s approach:
MIDs are always connected, use touch and tap interfaces, possess limited computing capabilities, sport 4-inch to 7-inch displays, connect via Wi-Fi and/or GPRS or EV-DO or HSPA, and, generally, are aimed at consumers.
UMPCs are likely to have larger screens depending on their intended use, are always connected, offer touch and tap interfaces, typically offer only a “thumb-able” keyboard but also a mouse pad and is marketed equally to consumer and enterprise alike.
“Mini-Notes” – i.e., netbooks – are a sub-category that marry features of the full-size notebook and the UMPC, according to In-Stat. The keyboard approaches, but does not reach, the full-size notebook layout. Screen size increases to 8-inches to 12-inches. Connectivity is similar to its cousins. Consumers are the target market.
For ABI Research, in contrast, the underlying processing power and architecture is a defining characteristic that renders all of the above merely “UMDs” – ultra-mobile devices.
ABI Research analyst Phil Solis said last week that the battle in the UMD space can be understood in terms of the underlying processor. The fight is between processors based on so-called x86 architecture, which have powered PCs and, now, netbooks that run PC-like applications, and ARM-based processors that have been low-power-oriented, used in mobile phones and, now, MIDs.
“The future shape of this market will be determined by engineering success on the x86 side, versus business success on the ARM side,” Solis said.
Who’s carrying what?
A current In-Stat survey may shed light on how end-users are addressing the question of whether to carry the Swiss Army knife or several tools. (Results are due at the end of January.) From past surveys, it appeared that older mobile subscribers preferred the smartphone/Swiss Army knife over alternatives, but Hughes suspects that younger subscribers bent on social networking will select the MID.
Because the market is too young to definitively say which devices are likely to be embraced, vendors are developing products in search of the market’s proverbial sweet spot – not unlike tossing the spaghetti strand on the fridge door to see if it sticks, Hughes acknowledged.
Price is a big driver, according to Avi Greengart at Current Analysis. These hybrid or single-purpose devices now sell at a level – say, a couple hundred dollars – that flies under the “spousal-permission” radar (i.e., one can purchase one without consulting the S.O.) But much of what’s on the market today may well end up as “drawer-ware” – i.e., under-powered devices end up in the drawer, not the briefcase.
Form and function proliferate
Videophones are expected in the not-too-distant future, as Nokia Corp., HTC Corp., Intel and even Skype are said to be working on such products, according to Forbes. Asus already offers the AiGuru SV1 for $300; it carries a seven-inch screen, a Skype client, Wi-Fi connectivity and stands alone on a desk.
The old saw – “the more things change, the more they stay the same” – may apply here, as some devices such as e-mail-only terminals, have been tried before. But Hughes and DP Venkatesh, founder and CEO of mPortal, agreed that developments in the wireless world bode well for the new proliferation of mobile form and function.
They cite the declining cost of processing power, the near-ubiquity of high-speed networks and consumer savvy as drivers for the buzz being generated by netbooks, MIDs, the e-mail-only Peek, even smartphone “companions” such as Celio’s Redfly (a combo screen-and-keyboard that works with a smartphone).
And the future?
Venkatesh actually sees a scenario in the not-too-distant-future when devices themselves play a role akin to the remote control and credit card, selecting content for later consumption on more powerful, stationary terminals, or making small financial transactions on the run – a vision already beginning to take shape.
The good news is that, unlike in the PC world where giants emerged to dominate the landscape, the mobile device market is more likely to see, say, three players splitting 90% of the market, with a proliferation of challengers grabbing the market’s crumbs – not unlike the current handset market.
“There are so many ways to attack the castle,” Venkatesh said.
As for form-and-function, Venkatesh likes the “80/20 rule.” Eighty percent of the market must go with a one-size-fits-all, multi-functional device, due to the economics dictated by volume manufacturing. Twenty percent of the market may be claimed by dedicated, single-purpose devices.
Oh, and, you ask, what about battery power? The analysts quoted above generally agreed that, unlike the chokehold battery power represents for converged smartphones, it’s too soon to tell for the rest.