Where’s the UMPC love?

The initial flurry of UMPC reviews are out and enthusiasts everywhere are asking themselves “why don’t these reviewers get the premise behind the UMPC?”  Almost every review I have seen of the Samsung Q1 (why these reviewers are largely ignoring the TabletKiosk eo is beyond me since it is the only UMPC shipping in the US to date) is quick to point out the lack of a keyboard, low battery life, lack of an optical drive and of course the high price point.  What is driving these observations in the reviews seems to be a lack of perception of what these devices actually are and that is obviously a failure in the marketing.  The UMPC is a totally new class of form factor and one that will likely never compare to the computing technology with which we have become familiar.  It is not a laptop and not a PDA so we have no base to compare it with.

Part of the perception problem comes from the early marketing that generated a lot of excitement and left everyone wondering exactly what these UMPCs would be.  Now we are seeing the reality, as reviewers are getting the early devices in hand, that the only thing to compare them to are other forms of mobile computing but that is just not going to work.  Sure there are cheap laptops that can be had for less than the purchase price of these first Origamis but they are limited in where they can be used.  UMPCs are designed to free the user from those barriers and make them operable almost anywhere.  But it is easy to see why reviewers are downplaying that function, it’s only been possible with a few devices to date (that are easily twice as expensive as these first UMPCs).

What we are looking at is a failure of marketing.  The decision to market the Origami as a platform has created the false sense that all UMPCs are created equal, a perception that is totally false since all OEMs are free to create their own particular device.  We’ve seen some UMPCs with integrated cameras and others with GPS but those are not great enough differentiators to justify higher prices for consumers.  Blame the early statements that Origamis should cost between $599 and $999 for the dissatisfaction of the UMPCs that are costing over $1,000.  A frequent comment you see is “when UMPCs are around $600 I’ll buy one” which is probably generated by the original price range Microsoft threw out there.  The TabletKiosk eo is firmly in the stated price range but no one is mentioning that, at least not in any article I have read.  Sure it is on the high end of that range but it is quite a bit cheaper than any other announced unit, no doubt due to the use of a Via processor and not the more expensive processors from Intel.

Somewhere along the line a decision must have been made to downplay the Tablet PC functionality built into every UMPC.  Maybe this was because the touch screen is more conducive to manual manipulation or maybe it was because there is still a lack of information about the Tablet PC OS in the general public.  Anyone who has used Tablet PCs will tell you it is easily the part of the Origami OS that provides the greatest functionality in a mobile setting. It is the primary reason that a small computer without a keyboard can be used in more settings and with greater ease than either the Touch Pack interface or even DialKeys.  It is just plain easier to ink text than to tap on the screen.  But I don’t see anyone pointing this out in the marketing materials or in any reviews.  When Walt Mossberg  feels compelled to write “in fact, the UMPC, which Microsoft had code-named Origami, is really just a small Tablet PC” you know you have a perception problem when that means very little to the public.

No doubt the next generation of the UMPC will get better hardware and battery life with advancements that are already being developed now but the price point will be the critical point in the end.  I hope we will see Origamis going for $500 or $600 in the not to distant future.  OEMs, don’t be afraid to lose a little hardware capability to achieve this price point.  Consumers are not stupid and will be willing to put up with a slightly slower processor or hard drive if the price is low enough.  The key selling point here should be technology you can use anywhere at a price that many can afford.

The initial marketing buzz for the Origami platform left many expecting some whiz-bang feature that would create a wow factor, something new that had not been done before.  The reality of these first UMPCs is quite the opposite, aside from the mobile form factor they really are just “small Tablet PCs”.  Sure, the Touch Pack is a nice pretty interface that makes it a snap to operate with the fingers, but anyone who has used an ATM machine or a kiosk in a retail store has been using their fingers on touch screens for quite some time.  There is no novelty there.  I have a suggestion for OEMs that would make a killer device with plenty of wow factor and help get the device price for consumers down to an acceptable level at the same time.  Put integrated 3G such as EV-DO into an Origami device and sell it through either Verizon or Sprint (in the US) and watch these devices fly out the door.  Couple it with a decently priced data plan and you will have that special feature that will put the Origami in a special class of its own, which has been the goal all along.  The subsidized pricing that the wireless carriers always offer will make UMPCs available at a reasonable price to consumers and the added benefit of being always connected will highlight the benefits of a truly mobile PC.

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