Ultra portables, the new form factor

When I was at Goldman Sachs, I fell into a crowd of Newton devotees.  I even remember my boss buyingOqo_1 a Newton after hearing me say that my first generation Newton was the bees knees.

In the next two years, Microsoft is going to be evangelizing index card sized computers.  The oqo is the model that is getting the most ink, but ultra-portable computers will get a Tablet-style push from Microsoft in the coming  months.  The ultra portables are smaller than a tablet, but bigger than a palm.  Think 5 inches by three and a half inches.  Just a tad too big to fit into a shirt or jacket pocket.

Although I am a tablet enthusiast (and yes, my sole work computer is a tablet) I don’t think the form factor of the ultra portables is going to succeed.  I think it’s too big to be considered a PDA, and too small to be considered a laptop.

So a few months after hearing me crow about the Newton, my boss went out and bought a second generation model.  When Apple made the second Newton, they made it bigger.  She was dismayed when I said, "Ugh, I think that’s a dead end product."  I was dismayed that she had bought the product on my recommendation and waited too long to act on it.

Bringing out the larger Newton while Palm was selling a smaller device with fewer features was
a huge mistake for Apple and a classic innovation failure.  Allowing an upstart to take your "low-end" market from you is the classic Innovator’s Dilemna (see book below).  It couldn’t do as much as the
Newton, but it fit in your shirt pocket.  The folks at Newton didn’t get the concept that their product’s list of prime features was:

  • it’s a portable device and smaller than a laptop
  • it keeps all your contacts
  • it keeps all your appointments
  • it lets you take notes electronically

Apple thought their feature list was:

  • it keeps all your contacts
  • it keeps all your appointments

     

  • it lets you take notes electronically

Palm basically came along, took their #1 feature (it’s portable), did it better, and assumed nobody would notice when they didn’t do all the rest of the stuff on that list.  They were right, and along with Newton’s handwriting recognition issues, the product died.  They didn’t need all of Apple’s marketshare, just the little bit at the low end.

Right before Apple put out their second, obscenely larger Newton, I ran into Dave Farber with a colleague.  Farber pulled a Palm out of his shirt pocket to record something we had said.  I mentioned something about it not having the capabilities of the Newton, and he said, "But it fits in my shirt pocket."

Light bulb.

Now several vendors are urging people to cross the form factor barrier the other way, to buy something that is bigger.  The argument is that it does more than a Palm, since it runs a full Windows OS, but it’s still small.  I don’t think it’s going to fly as a mass market device.  Of course I want one, but I want lots of technology products that aren’t good buys.

The OQO literature positions it as:

"You can use the same computer for high-powered applications at work,
sending email at home, listening to music on a train, or watching a
movie on an airplane. It is the only computer you need."

The problem is that there are lots of other devices that do those things better (Blackberry, MP3 player, Sony PSP, etc.)   It’ll be a successful fetish item (world’s most expensive home theater
remote control!) or a vertical item (great for health care workers!),
but I don’t think it’s going to be something that I will buy as my next
computer or my next phone.

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