An Open Letter to the Ultraportable PC Industry

The PC industry needs to wake up and learn how to make a small, lightweight computer. Here’s what they should be doing – now.
Posted January 18, 2008

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

Dear Industry,

Another CES has come and gone, and you've demonstrated yet again that you haven't got a clue when it comes to designing, building or marketing an ultraportable computer.

With the exception of ASUS Eee PC, all the tiny laptops unveiled at CES and available in the market are too bloated, too small, too heavy or way too expensive. And now even ASUS may be losing its mojo. ASUS is reportedly planning to add larger screens, touch screens, Windows XP, and other additions that may boost the price too high. (On the other hand, if ASUS can make these changes without raising the price, bring 'em on.)

Why can't you get it right? Why don't you notice that people are buying up the ASUS Eee PC like crazy and ignoring YOUR product?

The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, the Godfather of Tech Journalism, seems to share your lack of understanding about this category in a review of the ASUS Eee PC yesterday. He wrote of the ASUS: "its tiny 7-inch display is just too stingy for serious work" and concluded that "the Eee is a valiant effort, but it still has too many compromises to pry most travelers away from their larger laptops."

"Serious work"? "Pry travelers away from their larger laptops"?

This is why you fail: You keep producing devices designed for "serious work" and as laptop replacements. As a result, nearly all ultraportables are far too expensive, bloated and laden with needless functions. Nobody wants them.

An ultraportable is not a laptop or desktop replacement. It is an entirely separate category of device in the same way that a cell phone is distinctly different from a laptop. Did Mossberg slam the iPhone because it was inadequate for "serious work" and didn't "pry" him away from his MacBook? An ultraportable is an additional device, useful for "non-serious" work, like writing, e-mail and web surfing when you can't or don't want to bring along your laptop. It's not for CAD. It's not for gaming. It's for taking notes at restaurants and in class, writing travel journals in Calcutta, catching up on e-mail while waiting for the rest of the passengers to board your flight.

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You have tried and failed to produce a successful ultraportable, when the criteria for doing so couldn't be more obvious. So I'm going to spell it out for you. Here are the criteria needed to succeed in the ultraportable space:

1) Cheaper than $500. This is one-quarter the price point of many UMPCs in the market, but it's what's required. You might achieve this level of pricing in part by building everything (including storage) in as chips, rather than removable components. Don't use Microsoft software. One way to make them even cheaper is to subsidize them. Ultraportables should be sold like cell phones at the carriers' stores and steeply discounted when you sign up for a data plan. Look for other bundling and marketing opportunities, but keep it under $500 or we won't buy it.

2) Wireless. Ultraportables are like cell phones -- they're worthless if not connected. Just bake the mobile broadband right in.

3) A big keyboard is more important than a big screen. On a desktop, screen size is everything. And it's important on a laptop, too. Screen size is an acceptable place to compromise on an ultraportable, but the keyboard is not. Give us a fast-typing and standard QWERTY keyboard. Nobody is going to learn a new keyboard for an ultraportable (I'm talking to YOU, WiBrain, E-Lead and Samsung). No on-screen keyboards, no weird square-button, chicklet or other strange keyboards. Just give us QWERTY, please.

4) Simple UI. Windows Vista? Are you kidding me? Don't even think of putting Windows Vista on a UMPC (as many of you do). We need major work in the ultraportable OS department. For now, only Linux, XP and Windows Mobile are OK -- the ASUS Eee PC UI and Toshiba's new "eMotion Feel" US are steps in the right direction -- but someone needs to build a super simple OS just for this category.

5) Solid state. Don't saddle ultraportables with a hard disk and CPU that needs a fan. We want fast boot-up, silent operation and light weight more than raw storage capacity and raw processing power.

6) Instant on, instant off. Unlike any other category of device, an ultraportable is a grab-and-go device. You should be able to just open the lid or press a single button and be typing within two seconds.

7) Rugged, water resistant. By definition, an ultraportable needs to be able to go where your laptop can't. It's for the kitchen, hiking, extreme travel, and every day carrying. If it breaks when you drop it or gets ruined by common accidents, it's not useful.

Industry, if you can't match these criteria, then don't waste our time with your doorstops and paperweights. You have the technology and the manufacturing capability to produce devices that meet all these criteria. All you need now is to open your eyes and see what people are clearly demanding: Cheap and easy, quick-and-dirty connected computing on the go.

Yours Truly,


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