The prospect of a PC small enough to tuck into a school bag, powerful enough to run standard educational and personal productivity software and cheap enough that every student can have one, has tantalised the education sector for years.
The new kid in the class this year – shoes gleaming, pencils sharpened, blazer sleeves down to the knuckles – is the ultra-mobile PC (UMPC).
Half-way between a laptop and PDA, and combining the best (and worst) aspects of both, the classic UMPC weighs about 2lbs, runs a Microsoft operating system and is optimised for a particular and specific type of use (such as education, internet access or entertainment).
For schools or colleges anxious to tap into the riches of digital source material and prepare students for life in a digital world (as well as alleviating their boredom), it sounds like the answer to all their prayers.
Bill Rust, a research director at analyst firm Gartner, has long advocated such devices in education. As well as standard computing tasks such as word processing and preparing presentations, he says students could use UMPCs to access and annotate multimedia content from the internet and digital textbooks. Student response systems could help maintain interest in class, and give feedback to the teacher on how well the class was following the lesson.
UMPCs will not become “teaching machines”, however. A live teacher will still be essential, Rust says. Teachers could use UMPCs for admin tasks such as taking the register, report writing, communicating with colleagues and parents; and also to get up-to-the-minute feedback on a class or student’s performance compared with the rest of the school or national league tables.
However, the UMPC’s range of utilities extends well beyond the classroom.
Abhinav Bisarya, senior product marketing manager at wireless networking vendor Aruba, says: “UMPCs with camera capabilities have been used on school field trips to blog the experience by taking pictures, notes and recording video clips, making the learning experience interactive.”
University students can also use UMPCs for everything from taking lecture notes and making Skype calls to gaming, instant messaging and music, Bisarya adds.
Andy Macleod, business development manger for education at networking vendor Cisco, says: “At Geneva University wireless technology is used to push content to the students’ portable devices. Technology such as radio frequency identification allows portables to be ‘location aware’, so that students entering the lecture room can have the lecture notes automatically sent to their mobile PCs.”
The UMPC’s larger screen should give it the edge over PDAs when viewing graphics and multimedia, Rust adds.
Moreover, says James George, public sector sales manager at UMPC vendor Samsung: “It’s a PC, so it’s a familiar environment to students of all ages and you can load software just like a desktop PC.”
UMPCs have the processing power to match, he adds: 1.2GHz Intel processor, 40Gb hard drive and plenty of RAM. This allows students to create multimedia content as well as consume it.
Laptops can also perform these functions, of course. However, they are big, heavy and expensive, and more difficult to use while on the move, Rust says.
Despite their apparent similarity, UMPCs are also different from tablet PCs, according to Bisarya.
“UMPCs drive photo/video/text blogging behaviour, whereas tablets and notebooks are meant for capturing information for later review,” he says. “The touch screen, Wi-Fi and camera capabilities of the UMPC make this possible. Resellers should keep this in mind when communicating the value proposition of these products to buyers.”
Trials in UK schools have found UMPCs to be popular with students, teachers and parents.
Tom Cooper, skill improvement officer for the London Borough of Lewisham, says: “The students like the dial keys best, they use them on the same principal as texting. The handwriting recognition also works well.”
However, to date the take-up of UMPCs by the education sector has been negligible. Less than 2,000 units were sold to the education sector last year, according to analyst IDC. Sales may pick up this year, but only to about 4,000 units, estimates IDC’s senior research analyst, Michael Larner.
Rust believes a lot of the units already out there are “sprinkled around thinking something good is going to happen”.
If reality does not match the hype, UMPCs could fall into what Gartner calls “the trough of disillusionment” and sales could suffer.
Although partly ascribable to the newness of the platform, small sales also reflect what some observers see as the inherent shortcomings of first-generation education UMPCs.
Graham Brown-Martin, managing director of consultancy and lobbying organisation Handheld Learning, says: “UMPC is a great idea, but we need to see some iterations before it’s useful in education. There is an opportunity in education for a UMPC-like device, but today’s devices aren’t specifically designed for education.”
Some of the constraints are physical. “I can’t see many primary school kids wanting to lug a 2lb PC around in their bags,” Brown-Martin adds.
The interface will not suit everybody, says Dave Leach, head of marketing at educational vendor and reseller Research Machines.
“The first Tablet PC user that I gave a UMPC to immediately rejected the touch-sensitive (rather than active) pen interface,” he says. “They tried resting on the screen to write and it just doesn’t work. So a Tablet PC user will be disappointed, whereas a PDA user will be used to this.”
Battery life is also an issue. “To work in education it will have to last all day on one battery charge,” Brown-Martin says. That means at least five hours whereas today a UMPC on full power may only manage half that.
The machines could be powered down when not in use, but that would run foul of another of the UMPC’s limitations, says Rust. The Wintel platform is good for running standard software, but it takes too long to cold-boot for what is effectively supposed to be a replacement for a textbook or ring binder.
While Windows is the world’s most popular operating system for legitimate software, it is also the platform of choice for virus writers, which could give school network managers a serious headache, Brown-Martin says.
A lack of specialised software could also hold back UMPC sales in education. Rust says textbook publishers could really force the market by publishing digitally. These would be fully interactive publications, allowing students to make marginal notes, not just electronic versions of paper books.
Carol Webb, director of e-learning at Invicta Grammar School, says: “The software industry needs to design software for the UMPC screen size in the same way it has for PDAs.”
Software management could become a nightmare, according to Leach. “School students use 10 times as many applications as business users, and the hardest part of managing an education network is ensuring that all the right software is available to all the right students,” he says.
Physical security is another concern. School equipment must be rugged enough to survive in the classroom and school bag, and safe from thieves.
“An expensive UMPC might as well come in a bag that says ‘mug me’,” Brown-Martin claims.
The word “expensive” crops up in almost every discussion of UMPCs in education, with most observers agreeing that the volume price needs to fall below £400 before schools, students or parents will buy in sufficient numbers for the technology to become mainstream. Samsung’s current advertised price is £699; even with education discounts.
School budgets can be tight and parents are often asked to pay some or all of the cost of portable computers. If UMPCs are not brought within the majority’s price range, they are unlikely to achieve the one-per-student coverage that will be required to make them a success in the classroom.
The overall impression is that it is still very early days for the UMPC.
“I’ve yet to see an ‘education-to-go’ UMPC,” Leach says. “Technology suppliers model their solutions on business networks, where three or four main applications cover most things, and users don’t forget their computers or log off every 45-60 minutes to move around.”
Some vendors, such as Fujitsu Siemens Computers (FSC), have considered UMPCs, but rejected them in favour of Microsoft Pocket PC-based PDAs.
Gary Fowle, marketing director at FSC, says: “What primary learners tell us they like from their solutions is something small, portable and securable, with full-day battery life, and ‘instant-on’ – especially for social use.”
But other vendors are working on creating education-specific UMPCs. “By BETT [the educational IT show held every January] we’ll have a lot more education-specific software,” George says. This will include applications such as custom-produced e-books.
Other existing software problems should be solved when Microsoft’s Vista operating system (for which Samsung’s Q1 UMPC was actually designed) becomes available, George says.
Battery life should be extended beyond four hours by early next year, he adds, and by next spring Samsung hopes to have a non-Intel UMPC using 1W or 1.5W chips (current chipsets are 3-4W); this will boost battery life by up to eight hours.
“All-day working is not that far away,” George claims.
To address issues of ruggedness, Samsung is talking to case manufacturers to produce a range of cases to protect UMPCs, from soft sheaths to drive-a-tank-over-it Kevlar jackets.
As for the price, George says: “We certainly want to be sub-£400 next year as an educational device [in bulk volume]. It may be necessary to strip down the spec a little, but there are painless ways this could be done. For example, kids who access content from the internet or a school network don’t need a large hard drive.”
Connectivity is central to the success of UMPCs, and in tests schools have found that their Wi-Fi and Bluetooth interfaces work smoothly. Lewisham has even tested UMPCs successfully on a wired network, although observers agree that broadband internet and Wi-Fi will be de rigeur in most establishments.
This will also raise several issues, believes Brown-Martin.
“A lot of school and university wireless setups aren’t as sophisticated as you might think,” he says.
Resellers may be the beneficiaries, according to Bisarya.
“A rollout of UMPCs almost always increases the information traffic on the network exponentially (photos, music, video, VoIP), creating excellent opportunities for upgrading the infrastructure,” he says.
George says: “Education resellers are best placed to provide UMPCs and to understand their customers’ needs. But resellers with experience in PDAs and other small devices have a very good understanding of what could be added on to a Q1.”
Some major resellers are considering using Samsung’s Q1 to break into the education market for the first time, he adds.
Often what attracts resellers is the services and infrastructure business: configuration, support, software bundling and network upgrades. There is also a wide selection of add-ons to sell, including keyboards, memory cards, cameras, camcorders, photo printers, GPS devices, scientific instruments, spare batteries and chargers.
Even the price issue could work to resellers’ advantage, says Macleod.
“There are huge opportunities for resellers in providing financial models that mean that schools can afford to roll out sustainable services on UMPCs,” he explains.
However, until UMPCs establish themselves in the mainstream of education technology, only a handful of specialised resellers are likely to make much money out of them. Rust believes the tipping point will be reached within five years, while Brown-Martin claims desktop and laptop PCs will disappear in a decade.
UMPCs definitely have a future in the classroom, but it is definitely still in the future.
Aruba Networks (020) 7958 9002
Cisco (020) 8824 1000
Fujitsu Siemens Computers (01344) 475 134
Gartner (01784) 431 611
Handheld Learning (020) 7511 8773
IDC (020) 8987 7100
Research Machines (0870) 920 0200
Samsung (01932) 455 100
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