Paul Allen’s FlipStart Getting Real

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Paul Allen is known for many things—being the reclusive co-founder of Microsoft, being a massive Jimi Hendrix fan, building Seattle’s Experience Music Project and new football stadium, running a wide variety of business interests, and devoting time and money to health and human services philanthropy. Now one of Paul Allen’s technology projects looks to be getting ready for market: the FlipStart portable computer, which promises to bring the capabilities of a notebook system to a 1.5-pound, portable handheld device. But will the price—and the design—doom it from the start?

Paul Allen’s FlipStart project has been percolating since at least 2003: the idea is to offer a fully-functional Windows-based handheld system which offers wireless connectivity and full-functioning productivity applications in a package which can easily be snapped shut and put in a bag. Prototypes came and went, but now the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is reporting that Allens’ FlipStart Labs is getting ready to bring the FlipStart to market this month, where it will compete with UMPCs and other compact offerings from Samsung, Sony, and San Francisco’s OQO.

The FlipStart is based on a clam-shell design which opens like a miniature laptop computer; it’s less than 6 inches wide and weighs about a pound and a half. The design is designed to be friendly for desktop use, as well as the “two-thumb” typing approach commonly employed by users of BlackBerries and other keyboard-enabled mobile devices. The FlipStart will run either Windows XP or Windows Vista, and is powered by a 1.1 GHz Intel Pentium M processor. The system ships with 512 MB of RAM, a 30 GB hard drive, and offers Bluetooth, EVDO wireless mobile broadband, and 802.11 Wi-Fi wireless for connecting to the Internet on the go or using an open Wi-Fi hotspot. Also on board: a VGA camera for video conferencing, a built-in microphone, and USB 2.0—a port replicator enables users to connect a larger display and standard keyboard in an office setting. A secondary LCD screen embedded in the FlipStart’s lid can display data like upcoming appointments and calendar items without having to open the unit. The FlipStart offers both a trackpad and mouse stick, and FlipStart clams the unit can operate for up to 3.5 hours on a single battery charge.

The FlipStart is schedule to go on sale March 27 at a suggested price o $1,999; it will be available through flipstart.com and probably through other resellers.

Can the FlipStart succeed where UMPCs have (so far) failed? The relatively clunky design and high price tag would seem to make the FlipStart a niche product for executives and others with relatively specific mobile needs, with gamers, developers, and many others sticking to traditional notebook computers. But the FlipStart might back enough oomph—and application flexibility—to be an ideal solution for some road warriors with unique needs.

More details on the FlipStart can be found at Todd Bishop’s Microsoft Blog.

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