Ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs) are so new it is difficult to judge what kind of impact they are having in the market place. Launched in the summer by some key Microsoft and Intel partners, including Samsung and Fujitsu, UMPCs have only had a few months to establish themselves in the crowded portable space. In addition, all parties admit that the initial marketing for UMPCs was targeted mainly at enthusiasts and gadget addicts, and not at the business or public sectors.
At first glance, it looks like a hamstrung strategy, considering hand-held and portable devices are now central to most public-sector organisations, not to mention businesses as a whole. Also, why would vendors restrict the initial push to a small core of consumers? One would have thought that launching a new technology would have merited the mother and father of all fireworks displays. Apparently this was not the case, and it all comes down to reliability.
Mika Krammer, director of Windows client mobility at Microsoft, says: “It was a deliberate decision to focus the devices on the consumer side – the gadget enthusiast – for the first year. Even though we had initially just focused the products on the consumer market, there was a very big response in the healthcare, education and retail sectors. But we knew these were version one products and we didn’t want to prematurely push them into the public sector until they were fully ready. Frankly, we want to see the price come down more and battery life improve first.
“We want to make it an easier proposition for companies to adopt. Chipsets that run cooler and extend battery life are very important. We want to make sure we have worked out any hardware, software and services elements before any big push.”
However, despite this approach the public sector is already showing interest and there are many pilots underway. Even though it will be 2007 before the companies involved start to ‘officially’ push the devices in the public and private sectors, now is the time for focused resellers to be working on solutions. That said, is there a need for another hand-held device in the public sector, where PDAs and tablets are already well established?
Pankaj Kedia, director of UMPC ecosystems programmes at Intel, claims: “We don’t think of the UMPC as another form factor, but as a targeted function device that happens to be a PC disguised in an ultra-portable form factor. There is a great potential market for these in the healthcare space for doctors and nurses. They are constantly moving around in hospitals and clinics, from emergency rooms to rounds. They require real-time access to all of the databases containing patient information, from x-rays to medical histories and medical texts. These customers need access at their fingertips with a device that is always connected and internet/intranet-enabled. This is where the UMPC fits in.”
Kedia adds: “You might ask, why not a laptop? The laptop is a very capable device but it is not conducive to being carried around for 8-10 hours a day. On the other hand, a PDA is a very mobile device but it is based on a different architecture to what most hospitals already have, and that is Windows-based PCs. This makes them software-incompatible until you use special software. The internet experience on a PDA is not very good either. The UMPC delivers the best of both worlds – so you have the Windows software compatibility and the web experience. On top of that, the screen on a UMPC can be customised for the top six or seven tasks that the doctor or nurse carries out each day.”
James George, public sector sales manager at Samsung, says: “There is certainly a need for UMPCs, specifically in the public sector, where there is demand for a product that is small enough and light enough to carry around all day, operate with one hand, is fully-featured like a laptop and runs a full Windows operating system. There are a lot of PDAs in this space, but they are just too small for many of the tasks, especially any kind of collaborative working. It’s not possible because the screen sizes on PDAs are too small; after about 30 words you can’t read anything else.”
David Stevens, solution champion, desktop and mobile at Fujitsu Services, says: “There is a demand. What we are seeing, from talking to business customers with field workforces, is that the PDA form factor is too small and a slate tablet is seen as too large. The screen size of 7in on the UMPC is good for showing people forms or other information. Also, it’s still big enough for viewing high resolution images. We are working with one of the southern health services now, delivering image archiving systems. Part of the challenge after that will be creating a solution that will allow those images to be transferred wirelessly to a UMPC-style device.”
Roger Butterworth, managing director of Samsung Q1 reseller eXpansys, says: “There’s definitely a demand. This is because there is so much clear blue water between the high-end phone and the low-end laptop. We’ve seen an awful lot of interest in UMPCs although at this stage I don’t see any public-sector authority committing in volume just yet.”
One of main challenges to the future success of UMPCs in the public sector, particularly in the health service and those sectors with large numbers of field staff, is that it is a crowded market. Many are already using some form of mobile device. Laptops, PDAs, hand-held communicators and tablet PCs are already in the mix, all competing – without any overwhelming success – to be the clear mobile device of choice. Laptops, even the smaller ones, are too big to be used by a mobile worker all day. PDAs are limited by their display size and software compatibility but manage to be truly portable, cheap and are already well-entrenched in many public-sector markets. Dedicated slate-like devices are niche products and look like they will remain so, while the more appealing Tablets PCs are still finding their feet and are considered too expensive.
Hand-held communicators such as the BlackBerry and Smartphones might be knocking around, but they are still essentially advanced communications devices and little more. So where will UMPCs fit into this smorgasbord?
“They are mainly being used by people in the field right now,” George says. “Most of the applications are field-based at the moment and the devices are being used by the likes of social workers, health and planning authorities and housing benefits officers. The local governments are merging certain separate roles into one so these people need a way of bringing together the different information and forms they need in one very small, portable device. The touchscreen enables them to let people sign documents or contracts on the spot and it’s verified immediately online. If a user tries to do that with a laptop, or even a tablet-style device, it’s a lot more cumbersome.”
Krammer comments: “There is a very good UMPC opportunity in both local and central government, as well as healthcare organisations that have, in the past, used slate-like devices, PDAs and tablet PCs. We are not trying to supplant PDAs though. The advantage of a UMPC over a PDA is that of usability. It has a larger screen that allows for more applications, such as form-filling, image viewing and the ability to input a lot more text.
“Additionally, you can run any software from a PC or a notebook on a UMPC. All that needs to change is the user interface which makes it very easy for software vendors to get into the market. It also helps that users can synchronise a UMPC directly with their PC in the office or at home.”
According to Butterworth: “These devices will appeal anywhere where you see people trying to take notes with a pen and paper and then having to type them in later, or filling out forms and scanning them, or struggling with a laptop in the field. In these scenarios, everyone can benefit immediately from UMPCs.
“There is still a lot of form filling going on and there’s only so much you can do with a PDA. There’s a lot more flexibility with UMPCs and you get a lot more screen acreage to play with, which makes it much better for form-filling applications, to give one example. Once you have automated processes like this, you save business a lot of time, increase productivity and avoid the kinds of mistakes that can be encountered with rekeying information.”
Stevens says that despite the consumer focus so far, some emergency services are already piloting UMPCs.
“We have seen plenty of interest from the ‘blue light’ services,” he says. “A lot of them have hardwired proprietary systems and we see them moving into a commodity space. If you look at the NHS, and especially the ambulance service, the ability to gather diagnostic information and relay that while on the move from accidents is a big advantage. We are looking at partnering with some specialist application providers in that space.”
He adds: “In local government, there’s a move towards providing information to council workers in the field and that’s a market in which there has been a lot of activity. They have been restricted to ruggedised devices and PDAs, which has limited what they could do. Some more advanced councils have people working as neighbourhood officers, reporting back on situations that need to be dealt with on a daily basis. The fact that UMPCs use standard XP software means they will be easy to roll out. Right now, these organisations have to write a special piece of middleware for the PDA so that it can talk to their Windows operating systems back in the office.”
The applications for UMPCs in the public sector seem clear-cut, but just how far along is the market? After all, UMPCs have only been around since the summer and the marketing was squarely aimed at consumers and enthusiasts. In fact, it would be unfair to demand any real success in this sector so soon. So, while UMPCs have a role to play in the public sector, are these organisations biting yet?
“We are doing a lot of work with local governments right now, especially with social workers who spend a lot of time in the field,” George says. “Many have to go out, attend meetings, come back and type it up. They are now able to go out and get the information on the Q1 [Samsung’s UMPC device] and synchronise it with their PCs, rather than having to come back and type up notes.
“We have had the most interest over the past six weeks. Uptake has been slow but it’s taken some time for the information to get through. Now we are getting lots of enquiries, requests for loan units and early sales. We have local education authorities in Newcastle, Gloucester and Camden that have procured units. They started with some sample units, but they have now bought a few hundred.”
Butterworth adds: “We are doing quite a few pilots at the moment, two with public-sector groups. It’s mainly field-based form filling. The customers seem quite impressed with the savings. In one, people were filling out massive forms and generating enough paper per day to cost £7 in postage each. That’s a pile of A4 documents an inch thick which then had to be scanned or re-keyed. The UMPCs here could pay for themselves in less than four months.”
Things are still at the pilot stages with this technology and this is not going to change in the short term for two reasons: the technology needs improving and the main players are still working on the best approach to solutions and recruiting partners.
On the technology side, most agree that things have to improve. A battery life of just three or four hours is not going to convince nurses to give up their all-day PDAs, no matter how big the screen is. The price is still too high and there needs to be more specialist applications to create a solution-based sell by focused resellers.
“The interest we are getting is overwhelming, much more than we expected, even with the price point being twice as high as we would like,” explains Intel’s Kedia. “Also, we feel the battery life is not good and the form factor is too big. Doctors want a 4-5in screen so that they can fit it in their coat pocket. Battery life will go up also.
“This is generation zero right now and we are investing for the long term. We just announced our next chipset that will be coming in the first half of 2007. The power consumption will be half the 5W it is now and the package size will be a quarter of the size. In 2008, our processors will be 10 times more powerful, will draw just 0.5W and the package size will be 15 per cent of what it is now.”
According to George: “The expectation originally was that the UMPC would work for 20 hours and cost around $500, but the reality is that the technology to do that was just not available. The chip and battery technologies were not there, so it was more expensive than expected and the battery life is the same at notebooks. We have generation two devices on the way. There’s a version of the Q1 with double the battery life and another with a solid state disc (SSD) (see box, page 43) where boot up time is a few seconds and battery life is up 30 per cent longer.”
And where will the channel be? From talking with the key players, there is a lot of work to be done in the background to make UMPCs a solution-based sell: box-shifters need not apply. This means that resellers with existing public-sector customer relationships and who have a UMPC solution that combines hardware, software and services ready to roll will stand the best chance of getting on board.
Krammer says: “The channel has an extremely important role but our key challenge is to focus. To date, we have focused on the retail channel and now we have to work with our OEM partners and the channel to get UMPCs into the enterprise and public sector. As we look at the enterprise space we will be looking at distributors and resellers with the skills for the markets we are targeting.
“We are focusing on certain verticals and we want partners that will drive sales. We are aiming for less volume and more focus. We don’t want thousands of partners. Ideally it’s the kind of partner that has optimised applications for tablet PCs or slate-based devices already.”
Stevens agrees. “We will not be driving the UMPC as a device sale,” he says. “Corporates buy devices not because they are devices but because they want to mobilise their workforce. We are looking at mobile work opportunities and how to tie in a solution. There are niche partners in each sector that have credibility on the solutions side and we see that as the way to succeed with UMPCs.”
George says: “In fairness, we need resellers that can build applications that are focused on the vertical markets. They should be sector specific. The opportunity for them is great, more so than general resellers. One of VARs’ biggest gripes is margin, but here is a chance to pick up the product, develop a vertical application and market it to a sector they know well. These are the type of discussions we want to have with them and we can jointly promote those solutions.”
eXpansys (0161) 868 0868
Fujitsu Services (0870) 242 7998
Intel (01793) 403 000
Microsoft (0870) 601 0100
Samsung (01932) 455 000
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