MIDs, UMPCs and what mobile users really want

Intel this week showed four prototypes of the so-called Mobile Internet Devices, or MIDs, at the Shanghai version of its IDF conference. They looked . . . okay

I guess calling them MIDs is better than calling them unlaptops, or smart nonphones, but not by much.

Intel this week showed four prototypes of the so-called Mobile Internet Devices, or MIDs, at the Shanghai version of its IDF conference. They looked . . . okay. I offer faint praise not just because I haven't gotten a chance to actually touch these devices, but because I don't imagine I would be much more impressed if I had.

Some of these MIDs looked like mini-notebooks. Some looked like tablet PCs. Neither looked like something a person who enjoys a smart phone or a tablet would actually want to carry around, but whatever. Intel is not alone in wanting to create a new device category in a hardware industry starved for additional unit sales. And that's part of the problem too, because there's no indication of how a MID really differs from an ultra mobile PC, or UMPC such as those promoted by Microsoft and its partners.

Earlier this year Thomas Ricker at Engadget got an Intel exec to try and clarify things. A UMPC, he explained, is a business-class device for enterprise users (even if no enterprise I have ever, ever spoken to has heard of them, much less bought one) runs a "heavy" OS like Windows and is optimized for office productivity tools like Word or Excel. A MID, in contrast, is more of a consumer toy running Linux and is intended primarily for Web surfing. That's why it's using Intel's Centrino Atom platform and not, say, it's higher-end processors.

In other words, Intel is trying to further segment the device market along the same lines as the PC market is split. Companies like Dell and HP, for example, continue to stubbornly pigeonhole devices and pricing based on the kind of user they think will use them. There are still "business" PCs and "home" PCs, even though a lot of home users now want something as good or better than the six-year-old pile of scrap metal they are forced to deal with by their employer. So now there will be UMPCs and MIDs, even though either one would more likely be a consumer purchase, and the use case scenarios would be vast in scope.

Imagine if someone buys one of these MID prototypes, for example. Maybe someone ready to throw out their old Panasonic or Fujitsu laptop is ready for a different form factor, and opts for a Centrino Atom-based MID. And then let's pretend that they love it -- that somehow, surfing the Web seems so much easier and fun than it was on a larger device like their laptop, or more convenient than it was on a smaller device like a cell phone. Such a user, I'm pretty sure, would be the kind of person who would also consider, say, Web-based alternatives to Office like Google Apps. They would be the kind of person who works remotely, who likes to stay connected to the office when they're not there. Would such a user really have two devices, a UMPC for work and a MID for their personal life, which they would switch over like Mr. Rogers putting on his cardigan and sneakers? Please.

The whole point of mobile computing was supposed to be anytime, anywhere access on any device. It's time Intel, Microsoft and the OEMs stop thinking that users have a Jeckell-and-Hyde type of existence, and that they need different devices for each.

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