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Shanghai IDF: Looking Ahead to Future Laptops and Mobile Phones

I’m at Intel’s Developer Forum (IDF) in Shanghai China this week and I’m getting a lot of Tech envy. To give you an idea how bad this is, on the drive in from the airport we were passed by a Maglev train traveling at around 300 miles per hour and as I’m writing this piece there is a boat going by my window with a flat panel display that is about 20 feet high and 40 feet wide – darned thing is bigger than the whole front of my house.

What makes this IDF special though is that this is the official launch of MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices) and Netbooks as full on product categories. These two new classes of products should transform, over time, the notebook market, the cell phone market, and the portable media player market.

Netbook: Breaking the Small and Inexpensive Rule 

Traditionally you could have small or you could have inexpensive, but you couldn’t have both in a notebook. Small notebooks like the Toshiba Portage and even the Apple MacBook Air come with a premium price even though you generally gave up performance and battery life to get to their very attractive size. 

What Intel has done with their new Atom processor is fix part of the problem and eliminated the painful price tradeoff. Now with the official launch of the Netbook class of offerings you will see a lot of products, some running Linux and some running windows that are both small and inexpensive.

Now realize these aren’t gaming machines by any stretch of the imagination, but they will run all of the basic applications and be great little email machines. Even though they will be light on graphics, particularly when compared to something with NVIDIA or ATI graphics installed (and some more expensive offerings may actually have NVIDIA or ATI graphics in the future) their graphics performance should exceed a large percentage of the mainstream notebooks that were shipped last year with Intel integrated graphics. So they aren’t bad boxes. 

Price ranges will start below $500 and will likely top out at $1,100 with the more expensive systems having more memory, better graphics and screens, more comprehensive wireless networking solutions (3G), and/or more storage. Intel also announced their Solid State Drive line ranging from 32 to 128 Gigabytes which, as the prices for these drives drop, will make this and MID class of products more interesting. Clearly there will still be more exclusive and more expensive products like the MacBook Air and Lenovo X300 which were compared on stage (Intel doesn’t care which you buy since both are based on Intel technology).

Some of the products here are impressively good looking and they indicated a number of vendors will be offering customization for the products they will have in this class. Some of the products you’ll see later on in the year are designed specifically for students and the combination of light weight and price makes them ideal for student notebooks.

Overtime they will get thinner, more powerful, and likely hold the same price making it likely that a future and better (technology does improve after all) MacBook Air like product could fall into this price range. But MIDs, or Mobile Internet Devices, are another beast entirely.

MIDs: The Specter of the 3rd/4th Generation iPhone 

When Intel first pitched the idea of a “MID” to me I thought, hell, that’s an iPhone on steroids. The core differences to a MID is that it uses an X86 processor rather than an ARM processor so can run a vastly larger number of applications and operating systems native but it can’t yet be as small as an iPhone. The current generation iPhone makes a number of tradeoffs and does surprisingly well given the limitations of its ARM processor but you know Apple will constantly improve this product and the MID likely showcases, in terms of features, what it will become. 

MIDs based on Intel’s Atom part, while larger, are much less limiting and the products being showcased run either Linux, or a Windows variant (XP or Vista). Virtually all of the devices have built in wireless connections (frankly I don’t see much value in one of these that doesn’t) and are either running full IE or Firefox browsers. Because, unlike the Netbooks above, they are targeted more at entertainment they are designed for movies, music, interactive games, on-line activities like managing stocks or shopping, and providing a truly uncompromised web solution.

Some have built in full QWERTY keyboards and several have full cell phone capability. Most can be used as a VoIP device and video conferencing is an almost standard feature for the class. The current generation of ATOM, Intel’s processor for the class, won’t allow the devices to be as small as the iPhone oriPod touch. On the upside they generally have much larger screens, are vastly better at text entry, and have much better speakers as well. None of the announced vendors have multi-touch largely because few knew about Stantum the company that apparently brought this technology to market before Apple and, unlike Apple, will license it.

There are three parts to a successful product in this class. First is design, second is solid user experience that spans the device and the necessary back end media services, and the last strong is strong demand generation marketing. Most firms get one or two but Apple is the only company that consistently gets all three and their success is largely a result of that.

Price points are below the iPhone once you factor out the subsidy and, strangely enough, storage capacity is similar to the iPhone in many of the devices. Products you’ll see in market this year, largely because of their size, probably won’t be much of a threat to the iPhone but next year’s offerings will be close and suggest that the 3rd or 4th generation iPhone will actually be on this platform (the second generation iPhone with 3G capability is reported to be coming in May).

When Can You Buy a MID or Netbook? 

The really sad news is most of the MIDs won’t be coming to the US or Europe this year and those that do won’t show up until back-to-school season, so you have time to save your pennies if you want one.

What will be interesting to watch is how folks trade off the functionality of the MIDs, Netbooks, and the existing crop of smaller but less capable Smartphones and more expensive traditional laptops. This is going to force folks into some interesting choices that will get easier as these platforms mature and the painful tradeoffs get eliminated one by one. Are these new products for everyone? No, they are still young but they are a fascinating look into what is coming and for some groups, even in their initial form, they are a godsend. 

The Lenovo MID is a snapshot of what is possible with Linux and even in its current form comes the closest to the promise of an Apple offering than I’ve ever seen suggesting you can do with Linux what Apple did with UNIX. This is transformational, it is potentially revolutionary, and it is amazing to watch the birth of these new product classes.

Of course as I look across the products here at IDF it is clear that most of the manufacturers are thinking inside the box. I can’t help but imagine that eventually it will likely occur to someone that they could do something with the core technology that is truly revolutionary like the Global device that Gene Roddenberry imagined in his Earth: Final Conflict TV series. Now that is something to look forward to.

Rob Enderle
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Rob is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. Before…
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