So-called 'ultra-personal computers', or UPCs, which squeeze a full-blown PC into a form factor more reminiscent of a PDA, have been touted as the next big thing for several years. The recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has finally shown that the UPC may at last have become a practical proposition.
The realization of the UPC concept can be attributed to a couple of crucial factors. First, component miniaturization, especially of high-quality VGA displays and hard drives, is now making a desktop-type experience feasible on a small device.
Secondly, the commitment of chip vendor Transmeta to the UPC concept, with the latest generations of its low-power Efficeon and Crusoe designs, provides the necessary horsepower to drive devices based on a 'full' desktop operating system as opposed to the relatively slim-line operating systems used by today's PDAs.
But is there really a market for such devices? To date, none of the vendors pursuing the cause has made much of an impact on the global market. Indeed, some have been stuck in a pre-production phase lasting several years. Can they escape?
PDAs and smart phones have sold the concept of ultra-portability to millions of users worldwide, but not without a few caveats. Synchronization technology might help blur the distinction between document formats on the device and those on the desktop, but the relative lack of sophistication of high-end business applications on PDAs could provide an opportunity for pygmy PCs.
The familiarity of the desktop operating system, or systems, used by UPCs might also prove a boon for corporates, with additional training, development of new applications, security considerations, maintenance and integration issues all largely-covered within existing policies.
Of course, PDAs themselves are not standing still and are developing rapidly in terms of performance and integration with other systems. But the differences between the technologies involved could leave the door open to UPCs, which could prove more flexible than their more slim-line counterparts in many circumstances.
What is really needed is a respected enterprise hardware supplier to back the concept, but many of the most likely candidates are already committed to PDAs. Without it, the UPC looks set to remain at best a niche product.