Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

Are UMPCs Safe for Kids and Teens?

Monday, July 17th, 2006

Following the press coverage and discussions of the UMPC, one topic that is brought up pretty frequently is how useful these devices could be for students. The emphasis on these discussions is usually on the note-taking features of the Tablet PC operating system. The portability of the UMPC makes it seem rather optimal for carrying to and from school and from class to class. Microsoft even offers a free education pack for Tablet PCs that provides a number of useful tools for students. This can be downloaded from Microsoft’s website and even comes pre-installed on the TabletKiosk eo.

Anyone who follows the news is likely at least somewhat aware of the many recent stories about the dangers that kids face on the Internet. While the Internet has opened up a whole new world of both learning and socialization for kids, it also has introduced significant dangers ranging from targeted marketing to easy access to inappropriate (even pornographic) content all the way up to the risk of contact with child predators. Social networking sites like MySpace.com have become immensely popular with the younger population, making these sites particularly attractive targets.

Child safety online is a topic that I have taken a lot of interest in, both as the father of a toddler that I realize will grow up with the Internet as a key part of his life and also as a software engineer that has spent a large portion of my career working on online products largely targeted to younger audiences. PC Magazine recently published an excellent article entitled Do you Know Where Your Child Is Clicking? In this article, they outlined how quickly and easily a great deal of personal information about a child can be obtained simply by following up on information in personal web pages and online profiles that may initially seem to be very vague. Even kids and teens that seem to be generally cautious could still be setting themselves up for exploitation, thus requiring a great deal of parental vigilance and oversight of the young person’s online activities.

A primary recommendation in this article, which I have found to be consistent in most articles of this type, is for parents to not to give privacy while their children are using the Internet. Kids and teens should instead only use connected computers that are kept in a common area of the home where the parents or other family members are likely to be present. It also is recommended that the parents maintain primary control over the computers, including full administrative rights. These goals strongly conflict with the personal and portable focus of current UMPCs.

Connectivity is generally considered to be one of the primary functions of a UMPC. Wi-fi, Bluetooth, and/or cellular networking have been standard, built-in features of nearly every UMPC so far. The only significant exception has been the DualCor and its expected lack of built-in connectivity has been its most widely-mentioned criticism, leading DualCor to heavily emphasize the availability of add-on cards. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a wi-fi and/or Bluetooth add-on card is standard in the box, once these units are released. (more…)

E3 and the UMPC

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Last week, I attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) at the Los Angeles Convention Center. This is the large annual trade show for the video and computer game industry. I had that after the show I would be able to write an article for this site describing the ways in which the UMPC was represented at the exhibits. Unfortunately, instead I am left only with the opportunity to write a lament about its absence.

Of course, I am very well aware that the UMPC is not being particularly promoted as a gaming device and that there are, in fact, some significant technical impediments to running a large percentage of Windows-based games on them. The first generation devices do not really have suitable specifications for many modern games, particularly in the video/graphics hardware. In many cases, PC games are also very difficult, if not impossible, to play without a keyboard.

Even with these limitations, though, some games really do work well on a UMPC and it is a safe bet that most UMPC owners will at least occasionally use them for games. Microsoft should be working harder to identify games that do work well on a UMPC and get that information out in front of current and potential owners. Some sort of an official certification program for games (and all other software, for that matter) would be a very smart move and E3 really would have been a great place to promote such a concept.

One of the main reasons why it was disappointing that UMPCs were missing was that this year’s exhibits paid quite a bit of attention to portable and casual gaming. Of course, as expected, there were enormous booths dedicated to elaborate, cutting-edge games with realistic graphics running on state-of-the-art desktop PCs and game consoles. What was less expected was the amount of space dedicated to casual games designed to be compatible with lower-horsepower systems and for being easy and fairly quick to play. A UMPC really is a pretty ideal device for playing this sort of game.

Casual games took up a portion of the booth space from many of the major game manufacturers, while other companies that specialize in casual games even had large booths of their own. These games were frequently shown not only on PCs and/or game consoles, but also on cell phones and other hand-held devices. This indicated the desirability of playing these types of games on the go. Had the PC versions of some of these games been shown on UMPCs instead of desktop systems, it could have made quite an impression.

I believe it is primarily Microsoft that really missed the boat here. Not only did they fail to work with casual game developers to get them to use UMPCs to show off their products, they didn’t even bother to use them in their own booth! As would be expected, Microsoft had one of the largest and most prominent booths at the show, with the bulk of the space dedicated to showing off the XBOX 360 as well as high-end Windows-based gaming. In the back, center portion of the booth, though, they did have a section dedicated to showing off “Microsoft Casual Gaming”, with an emphasis on the availability of these games through MSN. With Microsoft as the primary driver of the UMPC concept, I was amazed to find that they were showing these games on desktop PCs and cell phones (presumably running Windows Mobile), but there was not a UMPC in sight.

One of the games being featured on the desktop computers at Microsoft’s booth was a puzzle game called Hexic. As part of the promotion of the casual gaming concept, they were handing out gift cards to show attendees with a free registration code for the game. Since I had the card for a free copy of that game, I downloaded a copy to my eo after I got home and gave it a try. The game works extremely well on the UMPC and I’ve actually enjoyed spending some time playing it. The graphics and sound are well within the capabilities of the eo and the game is completely playable using either the touch-screen or the eo’s pointer-stick. This certainly could have been demonstrated on a UMPC very effectively.

As a final note, I will mention that the only UMPC that I actually saw at the show was the one that I brought along myself. The food court areas and lobby were equipped with free wi-fi in order to allow show attendees to use portable devices to check email or surf the web during breaks from the show. At one point, I found a table in a coffee shop and used my eo to read and respond to a few emails that had come in while I was at the show. During this time, I did attract some attention from people who came up and asked me about the device. Wouldn’t it have been great if those attendees had instead been seeing and playing with UMPCs at the Microsoft booth or other exhibits?

Thoughts on Ultra Mobile PCs

Friday, May 5th, 2006

Originally published 3/12/06 on Bigbeaks Blog

This week, Microsoft and Intel formally announced their new design for what they call Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPC). This was the project that Microsoft had semi-mysteriously hyped under the code name “Origami” via a teaser site. These devices, which will ship later this spring, are essentially oversized PDAs running the full version of Windows XP (and eventually Windows Vista) instead of a mobile OS like Windows Mobile or Palm OS.

Like existing PDAs, these devices will use a touch screen with either no keyboard or a thumb keyboard. They will use memory cards as their primary removable storage and miniature hard drives (like the ones found in digital music players) for internal storage. Data transfer and software installation will likely be accomplished primarily via synchronization with a primary PC or over the Internet instead of through optical discs. The first devices are expected to include both wi-fi and Bluetooth for communications. The biggest advantages over existing PDAs are expected to be a larger, higher-resolution screen and, of course, the ability to run regular PC applications.

While this is unquestionably an interesting new product category, the obvious question that is widely being asked is whether or not there is actually going to be much of a market for these devices.. As I look at the description of these units, I realize that I’m likely right in the core target audience for these devices. My instinct is that I probably will own one of these within the next year or so, although there are enough unanswered questions leaving me with doubts that the first-generation models will meet my needs.

As is frequently the case with new product lines from Microsoft, the UMPC concept isn’t entirely original, although their backing and promotion should stimulate substantial growth in this type of product. A couple other companies have already put out tiny miniature-laptops that run the full version of Windows, although not with too much success. Microsoft’s own design is really a progression from the previous Tablet-PC version of the OS. In addition, my own experience with PDAs over the last few years tells me that this is basically the direction that non-cellular handhelds have already been heading.

Over the last few years, I have been steadily upgrading my portable electronic devices, moving towards carrying around as much computing power as possible. I have moved well beyond the standard organizer features of a PDA and now use it extensively for email and web browsing, audio and video playback, document creation, viewing and storage, and even in-car navigation. I currently have Palm’s Lifedrive, which includes a 4GB hard drive as well as a large (for a PDA) 320×480 resolution screen and built-in wi-fi and Bluetooth. This is my 5th PDA, with each successive upgrade having moved me closer to having the capabilities of a PC in a truly portable device. (more…)

Palm’s Future Mobile Managers and the UMPC

Friday, May 5th, 2006

Originally published 3/21/06 on Bigbeaks Blog

Since the recent announcement of Microsoft’s new standards and software for what they call an Ultra-mobile PC (UMPC), which I discussed in an earlier post, there has been a fair amount of speculation in the online Palm OS user community about what this means for the future of the Mobile Manager line. I touched on this topic a bit in my previous essay, but I thought the subject deserved a more lengthy discussion.

A recent editorial by Ed Hardy at 1src.com focused quite a bit on steps that Palm could take to make the Mobile Manager line more of a direct alternative to a UMPC. I think he is largely coming at this from the wrong angle. Instead of focusing on how to compete with the UMPC as a PDA, I think that Palm needs to understand that Microsoft’s announcement essentially validates the whole concept that Palm introduced with the Mobile Managers. Instead of trying to present the LifeDrive and its successors as alternatives to the UMPC, Palm should work to help the public understand that they are versions of the same idea. If Palm intends to continue with the Mobile Manager line, within a year or so I would expect them to be able to do essentially anything that a UMPC can do.

In the short term, I do think Palm is reasonably well positioned to bill the LifeDrive as a stepping stone to a more full-featured UMPC or future Mobile Manager. Current reports are indicating that the first round of UMPCs to come out will likely be priced around $1,000 or higher. With the LifeDrive’s recent price reduction to $400 suggested retail, it clearly is a substantially lower priced option. If the price reduction is foretelling an upcoming LifeDrive-2 that will offer increased storage and, hopefully, improved performance and stability with a cost that is still around half the price of the early UMPCs, they should find that there is still a market for the product, at least for another year or so. I think the key will be not to promote the devices as a more capable option than a UMPC, but instead as a way to get much of the power of a UMPC in a less-expensive and smaller package.

It is very likely that the second-generation UMPC models will see the prices coming down substantially. Based on the goals that Microsoft has discussed, it appears likely that the price gap between the current price category for the Mobile Managers and the expected pricing for the next UMPCs will be much smaller. I think it is pretty clear that any device running the current Palm OS Garnett is likely to be so substantially reduced in capability compared to a UMPC running a full version of Windows (likely Windows Vista in the second-generation models), that the extra cost of the UMPC will be pretty easy for most people looking for this kind of device to justify.

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