Microsoft had their chance at defining a market. They pushed for the creation of the Ultramobile PCs (“UMPCs”). The Windows-based mini-tablets have not found their market. However, the Apple iPhone (and now the iPod touch) is actually the UMPC done right.
The Windows-based UMPCs tried to create a market. The first-generation UMPC devices were large and bulky. The UMPC is still not quite small enough to replace a PDA or smart phone; nor is it large enough to be a laptop computer. The device is a strange in-between device. Apple snuck a portable computer into a cell phone form factor. The iPhone is not really a phone in the traditional sense. It is a computer running OS X that can run many applications (although Apple has locked many applications out for now) with a cell phone application tacked on.
The iPhone interface is the right interface for a portable computer device. Shrinking a desktop experience onto a mobile screen is incredibly difficult. The UMPC essentially tried to replicate the desktop experience on a device smaller than a laptop. Several UMPCs did away with a physical keyboard. Others tried smaller, thumb-based keyboards. Traditional computers need keyboards in order to input data.
Apple did not try to replicate full-blown desktop experience. They adapted their applications to run optimally on a portable device. The mobile Safari application makes other mobile web experiences seem lacking. The touchscreen keyboard still needs work, but functions in a pinch. Since Apple puts such an emphasis on “lifestyle” computing instead of productivity, the lack of a great keyboard is something many overlook. The iPhone disguised itself using its personal media player capabilities.
Tying the iPhone with a cellular phone network is also what makes the product a success. Omnipresent internet access is incredibly helpful in creating a real mobile computer. People expect internet access on computers these days, and the iPhone bundles internet access on a portable computer. Yes, there have been other solutions to put wireless internet access onto portable computers, but none have been as elegant as Apple’s solution.
Why do the Apple products succeed where the competitors fail? The Apple products are incredibly easy to use. If you’ve seen the commercials for the iPhone, you already know how to use the product. The iPod touch is needlessly feature-light compared to the iPhone, but works in pretty much the same manner. It is really the Apple Tablet UMPC. Could you imagine seeing a UMPC ad showing the use of Internet Explorer?