Microsoft Preps Ultramobile PC for Second Chance

Despite having been on the market only a few months, ultramobile PCs, the keyboard-less handheld computers capable of running Windows XP, have already been panned by analysts and many reviewers.

Now they’re being targeted by the likes of Sony and startup OQO, who are offering their own diminutive computers for businesses.

But Microsoft and partners—the UMPC has been backed by Intel and VIA Technologies—expect to see more diversity in the UMPC space in the near term.

New manufacturers will bring forth additional usage models and design improvements such as integrated, drop-down keyboards and built-in wireless wide area networking, while also driving down prices.

“You’ll see an additional wave of UMPCs available in the holiday timeframe,” said Mika Kramer, head of Microsoft’s new Windows Client Mobility Marketing Team, a group within its Windows Client Product Marketing Group in Redmond, Wash. “We are seeing a lot more Tier 1 players get a lot more interested in releasing the UMPC.”

To read more about Gartner Group’s thoughts on the first UMPCs, click here.

Microsoft has been working with some of those partners to help lower prices and deliver machines in different shapes, styles and colors.

There’s room for designs that target women or teenagers, while others might aim for a business-oriented crowd, according to the software maker.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows Vista operating system, scheduled for January 2007, will also offer more functionality for UMPCs, and Microsoft will continue updating its Touch Pack or UMPC-specific application bundle, she said.

“You’ll definitely see form factors change in the Q4 [2006], Q1 [2007] timeframe. You’re going to see integration of different IDs [industrial designs]…and incorporation of keyboards in some machines,” Kramer said.

“I think it’ll be characterized by new entrants in the market. You’ll see incremental improvements as time goes by.”

Kramer declined to say who might join the UMPC space. Asus, a well-known Taiwanese computer maker, will join this summer, however.

Its 2-pound R2H will offer a 7-inch screen, an Intel Celeron processor and will sell for about $1,000, a company representative told eWEEK recently.

Microsoft will get help from chip makers. Intel, for one, has previewed a low-voltage Core Duo chip that will arrive this summer. VIA Technologies plans to deliver “John,” which combines its C7-M processor and VX700M chip set in one package, allowing manufacturers to create very small motherboards for notebooks or UMPCs.

But price, above all, will remain a factor in stimulating demand for UMPCs, analysts said.

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