Sunday, May 07, 2006

Will the PC makers botch Origami?

Will the PC makers botch the mid size form factor PC? Signs point to yes, and not just the Windows version.

The Pepper Pad is a Linux version of Microsoft's Origami. It is being touted as being 'first to market', we will see whether this is actually true if and when devices ship.

The Pepper Pad has one feature that I suspect the PC versions will quickly copy, a pair of built in thumb pads at the left and right of the screen. I suspect that the Pepper Pad has this for the same reason that Sharp's Zaurus did: good open source handwriting recognition is really hard to find. I suspect that this feature will quickly make it to the Windows machines as well, the dirty little secret of pen computing is that good proprietary handwriting recognition is also hard to find. RIM's thumbpad quickly blew away Palm's 'Graphiti'.

The problem is not just the handwriting recognition algorithms, its the whole interation pattern. Conventional Web sites have HTML forms that are optimized for keyboard input. Most people's handwriting is rather bigger than the font sizes used in form input.

Unfortunately the Pepper Pad people seem to have blown the design in the same way I predict some of the Windows versions will: No video out. The killer application for a device of this type has to be to carry into a room to give presentations with a DLP projector. Composite video does not cut it, I can't do powerpoint from composite video.

The way a product becomes a breakthrough product is that it supports a killer application for a niche group of early adopters, an application that is compelling enough to be able to build out the infrastructure necessary to support it. The biggest complaint against the mid size format is that the machines are twice the promised price ($1000 after necessary accessories instead of $500). The only way to make the product cheap is high volume.

I suspect that the reason the video port has been cut on most of the machines is an attempt to make the product cheaper. Its a stupid strategy, there was never any way that the first units were going to be cheap. So what we have is a machine that has a laptop price that isn't a laptop replacement.

I think that laptop replacement is what most people would use a midi format machine for. Without the thumbpad they are at best a replacement for passive Web browsing. You can read Web sites and read email but you can't reply or post easily. That is fine for many applications but fine does not justify a $1000 gizmo. The gadget may be pitched at the first time Web user but these are the most conservative computer users.

The person I would be trying to sell such a gadget to would be someone who travels quite a bit, has a desktop or laptop which is their 'daily drive' but has the occasional need for something smaller, lighter, for out of the office use.

Origami and Pepper are fine for the in-transit portion of the trip but they don't have an answer for what you do when you arrive. I don't know many travelling professionals who can drop $1000 on a gadget that won't be doing powerpoint on arrival. The only exception would be photographers using the device as a portable media vault. But that's the exception proving the rule, photographers may not do powerpoint but the need for a bigger screen is even more urgent. If I was using a midi in that way I would probably want the option of carrying a larger display to use in the hotel.

For the midi format to be viable it needs infrastructure. At a minimum much better mirroring software to allow people to easily keep their systems in sync. In the longer term a 21" or bigger higher definition flat screen monitors are going to break the $250 barrier. 19" has already done this. At that price offering guests the use of a large monitor in their hotel room starts to make a lot of sense.

No comments: