The ultra-mobile market

Even before the unveiling of Microsoft’s Origami/UMPCs, naysayers of the pint-sized Windows XP machines have been against the concept. "Too big to put in your pocket," they said, "and too small (and not powerful enough) to replace your desktop or notebook. What’s the point?"

In most articles and reviews, writers ultimately conclude that while the devices are definitely ultra chic, there is simply no market for it, no target audience. "Who needs it?" they ask. The power user will be more productive with an ultralight subnotebook that has a built-in optical drive and keyboard; the on-the-go professional will be dissatisfied with the UMPCs’ poor battery life; the twenty-something can buy a high-end PVP, such as the Archos AV700, for a fraction of the price; and the college student simply can’t afford it.

Perhaps more important than who needs it, though, is who wants it. Most consumers’ opinions are so heavily dictated by the media that if manufacturers marketed UMPCs (and other micro PCs and handtops) correctly, the answer could be just about everyone.

Consider the cell phone or mp3 player, for example. I’m always amazed by how many people I see (on the street, in the mall, in line, on the bus, at work) who evidently can’t bear to spend even 15 minutes without listening to music. Were these the same people carrying oversized boomboxes on their shoulders because they couldn’t stand to be apart from their music collection? Did every person who now won’t leave the house without a little player around their necks or in their pockets attach a portable CD player to their belt clip 10 years ago? Of course not.

If advertisements can bring the previously elusive world of digital audio to the mainstream (this, of course, is due in large part to Apple, whose ubiquitous marketing has made iPods synonymous with mp3 players – even though companies like Creative were producing such players years before even the first-generation iPod was sold), they can do it again, especially once/if the prices go down.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t need the Vaio UX180P (even though it’s not a "real" UMPC, I still categorize it as such), but my god I want it. And the extent of this desire, fueled by online hype and dedicated forums, makes me daydream so often of when and where I’ll use the little device that I certainly feel as though I can barely function without it. And by purposely searching for photos, reviews, and general impressions, I did this to myself! I made myself believe, like all those mp3-player-wearing folks, that I cannot live without it. Imagine the state I would be in if I were assaulted by UX commercials, magazine ads, and billboards everywhere I went (iPod ads, for example, are so huge that I easily spotted one from the top of Seattle’s Space Needle).

In truth, I’m not sure whether the new crop of UMPCs will ever find a market here in the U.S. (the UX series is relatively popular in Japan). Microsoft, afterall, has tried and failed before with similar devices. (Remember the handheld PCs running Windows CE?) How the products fare in the long term remains to be seen, though the outlook – even from a manufacturer’s point of view – seems a little bleak., for example, has a meager 750 units to sell. That’s just $1.4 million in gross sales, which certainly doesn’t recoup development, manufacturing, and other costs.

But regardless of whether Sony eventually discontinues the UX (which has already replaced the U series), I’ll still be wearing the biggest smile on my face when FedEx arrives in a few days. And that’s all that matters to me.

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Jenn K. Lee

Jenn K. Lee is the founder of Pocketables. She loves gadgets the way most women love shoes and purses. The pieces in her tech wardrobe that go with everything are currently the Samsung Galaxy Note II, Sony Tablet P, and Nexus 7, but there are still a couple of vintage UMPCs/MIDs in the back of her closet.

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