A few years ago the music player device space was incredibly boring. The Sony Walkman CD player was the last big thing in music players, and it had long since become irrelevant. Products from RIO, which was going through a bankruptcy, and Creative Labs were anything but exciting. Then, from left field a PC company, Apple Computer, entered the marketplace with its iTunes MP3 players. The rest is history.
As was the case with the Walkman, as well as with the good old Palm Pilot, MP3 players won’t always be on the top of the heap. What is the next big thing going to be?
The ‘Communicator Class’ of PC
The following three products have the chance, as they mature, of becoming the next big thing because they embody some of what the iPod has to offer but are at the same time much more practical. Each of these three offerings — from three very small companies — has a ways to go before it’s ready to compete, but the potential is clear to me.
I believe we are about to see the emergence of another broad market class of computers with highly divergent industrial designs and an increased focus on communication, ultra portability, and collaboration. I call this product group the “Communicator” class — in part, because more people remember “Star Trek” than “Earth: Final Conflict.” If that were not the case a better name would have been “Global.” In Gene Roddenberry’s 1997 flick, the “Global” was a fully capable handheld computer that was also a phone. The device provided an extremely rich communications experience.
These products aren’t going to be cheap, but the offerings on the horizon are relatively rare, making them likely to fall under the “early adopter” buyer category. Here are the contenders.
OQO, DualCor, Flybook: Signs of Things to Come
- The OQO +1 Tablet PC: One of the reasons we haven’t seen much in terms of new, overall design from Apple lately with respect to the firm’s PowerBook line is because the original core design team spun out on its own and formed OQO. The OQO +1 Tablet PC has recently gone through a significant update with greater memory and an extended battery, with a true digitizer to replace the touch screen.
A little larger than a PDA but vastly smaller than your average laptop, this product takes the idea of being ultra-mobile one big step further. As with any Bluetooth-enabled PC, a Bluetooth phone can be used to complete the solution. This gives users the option of leaving the PC at home and traveling with just the phone.
- DualCor: I first mentioned DualCor in my CES coverage last month. This PSP-like product has full cellular capability and even contains a GPS system. It is the closest thing to a single product that may be able to replace a user’s iPod, laptop, PDA, cell phone and maybe even, in time, PSP. It’s also compact — the current model is not that much bigger than a PSP console.
Both the OQO and the DualCor pose keyboard problems for power users, but both products lend themselves to potential iPod-like accessories markets that would include special foldable keyboards, like the Stowaway models made by ThinkOutside, as well as cases and mice. If you want to see a really cool keyboard, by the way, check out the Optimus from Russia. Every key has an OLED display and it can be configured on the fly for a variety of languages, games, or products, like Photoshop can. If a keyboard can be the next big thing, this probably has the best shot.
The OQO +1 is now shipping but the DualCor is not. That’s why it’s hard to really compare and contrast the two products yet. I’ve been using the OQO for some time now, however, and while I wouldn’t write the great American novel on it, I have found that it does a reasonable job with the tasks I’d normally use a laptop for.
Even as I was aware of the OQO and DualCor products, it wasn’t until I attended the Distree conference in Monte Carlo last month that I started to put the dots together and realize that I was seeing the birth of a new class of personal computer, one that truly embraces voice as part of the mix. This next product helped me see this more clearly.
- The Flybook: The Flybook is larger than the OQO and the DualCor but it is also a more capable replacement for the notebook you know and love. It also contains a cell phone like the DualCor does. With both products, you would probably come to love your wireless Bluetooth headset.
Unlike the OQO and DualCor products, however, the Flybook adds customization to the mix, and I think this is critical to the class. As we have seen with Nokia cell phones, people tend to make devices like this all their own. Having options to fit users’ unique tastes is important.
Customization Is the Key
The customization aspect is one that I think most of the vendors have yet to fully grasp and it is largely this aspect that points to the future of this class. In the end I think the device will evolve to look a great deal like the Philips Display device prototype that was demonstrated at CES last month and at Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) in Berlin in September.
Whatever happens, we are watching the birth of a whole new platform — one that embraces a series of devices and brings them together into something that is personal, incredibly portable, and has the potential to become more common than the iPod is today. In my mind it isn’t an “if” question anymore, it is a “when” question.
Of course, if you think about it, the highest profile product today that is kind of close to this is the RIM Blackberry, which is engaged in some kind of a weird death dance with NTP and the U.S. legal system.
RIM: Deceptions and Entitlements
Currently the Blackberry comes closest to enjoying the kind of use I envision the “Communicator” class of device eventually embracing. In its current configuration it is a cell phone and an e-mail product though it doesn’t yet truly embrace other functions as does the Palm Treo. It was big first though, and a number of U.S. government agencies appear to be addicted to it.
In the U.S. NTP has prevailed in its patent dispute with RIM even as NTP’s founder, Thomas Campana, died of cancer during the proceedings. What started out as a relatively trivial settlement has ballooned into a half a billion dollar deal, with a potential network shutdown and even higher financial stakes looming.
During its trial vs. NTP, RIM provided a demonstration that clearly showcased NTP’s patents were invalid. The only problem was, the demo was contrived. RIM was caught and a massive judgment and potential injunction followed. As I’m writing this NTP is moving aggressivley to shut RIM down.
The U.S. government recently stepped forward and formally requested that the RIM service continue for them. The Justice Department and others have used the “matter of national security” argument to petition the court to keep RIM operating which, incidentally, has really upset some large private businesses. Part of the reason for the request is, evidently, Blackberries continued to work during the Katrina and Sept. 11, 2001 disasters.
What may not have been disclosed is that this is probably because the older RIM products operate on the old pager “Mobitex” network which is more robust than the cellular network but is also in the process of being shut down nationwide. That’s right, with or without this case the “robust anti-disaster” thing is going away — and once it’s gone it isn’t coming back.
I’m not sure how smart it is to try and scam the U.S. government or an already annoyed judge, and I personally don’t see what the big deal is in switching to a Goodlink Palm Treo, which has a number of advantages over the RIM. When you consider that, at the core of this, NTP has been successful in its allegation that RIM is basically stealing its stuff, having the Justice Department come down on the side of the now convicted thief is just surreal. But then, it also may be a sign of the times. In court and politics, evidently, I guess it comes down to whatever you can get away with.
Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.