MID’s not-so-bright future

As mentioned in the recent VentureBeat article, nVidia’s dividing its mobile graphics lineup into three products: Tegra for $99 MIDs (abbreviation for Mobile Internet Devices), Ion for $299 Intel Atom-based netbooks, and GeForce for $599-and-above laptops. The viability of netbooks has been more than proven for last couple of years, ever since ASUS released its first eee PC. The question at stake is whether MIDs can thrive much in the same way.

Though it seems a relatively new term, the term MID was born roughly the same time as netbooks did. Intel unveiled its first concept MID at its Intel Developer Forum on September 2007. Meanwhile, Microsoft had launched its UMPC (abbreviation for Ultra Mobile Personal Computer) concept back 2006. MID and UMPC both aim to establish a product category between smartphones (cell phones) and laptop computers, but the former is a little cheaper and smaller than the latter. It is interesting that the behemoths of the computer hardware and software industries both foresaw the potentials of this “niche” around the same time, but ultimately who ignited the boom was neither one of them, instead a less well-known laptop manufacturer called ASUS, which introduced its own subnotebook lineup called Eee PC in late 2007.

The success of netbooks in the recent years may be attributed to a series of factors, but two of the most salient properties can be traced to their familiar form factor and low price. A[n almost] full-size QUARTY keyboard and capability to run a complete PC operating system (either Windows or Linux) is something you will never see from a smartphone or any other cellular phones; by the contrary, “regular” laptops could not provide the level of functions at an drastically inexpensive cost, albeit with an obvious limitation in performance. Netbooks have exploited this otherwise ambiguous niche and succeeded. MIDs and UMPCs, however, have not, so far.

No matter how nVidia would like to market $99 MIDs (with their Tegras) as “the next big thing,” such optimism should be taken with a grain of salt. Microsoft’s UMPC was a recent example to refute a blind faith towards the success of an Internet-capable portable device. It failed to create a vibrant market space of its own not only because of its exorbitant price but also because of its limited capability in terms of design and interface. Sure, it could run Windows XP on the go, but who would like to type on oval-shaped microcosmic keyboards employed by those UMPCs? The keys on UMPC keyboards were even smaller than those keys on your cell phone. Given that fundamental flaw on the input interface, Microsoft failed to convince users why they should abandon their smartphones/cell phones or laptops (or both).

MIDs, though much cheaper than their Microsoft-endorsed counterparts, are likely to roughly end up in the same quagmire. The HD video capability provided by nVidia’s Tegra does little good here, since running 1080p HD on 3 or 4-inch LCDs is no better than just playing DVD-quality videos anyway. The market is much more competitive now; Apple’s iPhone and its competitors seek to expand the extent of smartphone capabilities across the territories that were once only accessible by fully featured laptops and netbooks. People would either purchase a sleek smartphone with dedicated features or a netbook with almost complete PC features (or both to complement the deficiencies of each other). MIDs and UMPCs satisfy neither needs.

Addendum: I also doubt that Intel may dominate the handheld device market with its Moorestown platform.

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