The mobile-computing-device market is a little like the car market. On the high end, you've got your big, fully loaded luxury models–that would be your large-screen laptops. On the low end, you've got your park-anywhere, use-minimal-power gizmos–your smartphones. In between, you've got a range of sedans and low-cost compacts–your tablet PCs, subnotebooks, and netbooks.
Seems like plenty of variety in that lineup, but Intel–for more than a year now and hot on the heels of its promotion of netbooks–has been evangelizing a new entrant, a device it calls the MID computer, for Mobile Internet Device. Others refer to it as the ultracompact computer or the tweener. As described at multiple industry events by Intel, such a computer would fill a niche, being more portable and less power hungry than a netbook, yet having a bigger screen and providing more functions than a smartphone. Intel's vision, originally a device about the size of a standard videocassette, seems now to be shifting to embrace multiple shapes and sizes.
It's no coincidence that Intel has the perfect processor to power such a computer–the Atom, launched last year. It's powerful enough to run full versions of standard software, like Microsoft Office. It's efficient enough to do so for hours without recharging. (You'll rarely see a netbook user today without a power cord.) So indeed, you could build a small, powerful, efficient MID computer.
But if you build it, will they come?
The answer, says Dave Blakely of Ideo, the Palo Alto, Calif., firm that did the product design for the original Apple mouse and the Palm V–is maybe.
"It is an entirely viable product for a small slice of the mobile computing population," says Blakely, Ideo's senior director in charge of technology strategy. "But that is a fractured slice. I can't name a single significant market segment or single killer app."
As examples of those slivers of the computer market, Blakely points to women who carry purses big enough to make the size difference between a smartphone and a MID computer irrelevant. They might pick the MID for its better movie viewing. He also thinks that road warriors who do a lot of videoconferencing might also prefer a device with a bigger screen than what's on a smartphone.
"I can name lots of potential users, but none add up to massive success," Blakely says.
Pankaj Kedia, director of global ecosystem programs at Intel, agrees that there are clusters of types of users rather than a single big market segment. He describes the MID computer as a flexible concept rather than a specific size and shape. "The devices are very personal, subject to personal taste," he says.
Says Kedia, "It may be pocketable, a smartphone replacement. For that I want the screen size to be 4 inches, to fit in my jeans pocket. For navigation, in your car, research has shown that a 5-inch display is more optimal. In the enterprise space, interviewing clients, looking at data, you need a 6- to 7-inch display."
Indeed, points out Ken Dulaney, a vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner Research, Intel is right to back down on its original vision of the MID as a new class of all-purpose lifestyle computers, because that just isn't going to happen. "Intel badly miscalculated this space," he says. "The iPhone showed that people want a slightly smaller product that can be used as a convenient phone; you can't put a MID in your shirt pocket or hold it up to your head."
Still, it might not be smart to completely write off this device. "It has a shot," says Blakely. "We've seen a history of products with brand-new form factors appear in the world: There were people who thought the Sony Walkman would never make it."