Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.
There's a growing category of devices that fall in the space below laptops and above smartphones. It's not a new space, there have been various incarnations over the years, most recently Microsoft's Ultra Mobile PC devices, originally known as Origami. These days, Intel's the one talking about this space, pushing what it calls MIDs, or Mobile Internet Devices. Well that's all well and good -- but what's a MID?

Frankly, MID is an Intel marketing term coined around 2008. In a 2008 Engadget post Intel's Dan Monahan described MIDs as having the following attributes:
  • Consumer-class lifestyle devices
  • Runs a 'lightweight" OS with quick startup like Linux
  • Optimized for things like media playback and web surfing
  • In 2009 (or so) Moorestown-based devices will be classed as MIDs only
And Intel is aggressive about MIDs -- the company was showing off so many of UMID's devices at IDF last week you would have thought they were among Intel's most strategic and largest customers. But it's clear that the definition has changed over time, as the MIDs at IDF didn't match the specs Mr. Monahan talked about in 2008. These devices all ran Windows and were really scaled down models of netbooks. And although they were impressively tiny, let's be honest -- I'm really skeptical about the future of this class of device, Intel's aspirations aside.
For one thing, this class of devices -- often called 'tweeners -- have never done well historically. For years folks have attempted to bridge the laptop and the phone with something in the middle and it just hasn't worked. I'm not seeing anything in any of these MIDs that might change that.

Second, there's a limit to the number of device consumers will carry. For most consumers, it's two, and the max three. A MID therefore must dispalce something else in a user's hierarchy of functionality. If MIDs are just one more thing a user has to carry, they're not going to carry it. New generations of MIDs running Windows might look like they're designed to replace your laptop, but unless they can actually replace it, they're going to fail.

Let's not forget price is also huge issue. Dynamism sells the UMID mbook M1 for $599. That's for an Atom processor, 512MB of RAM, and 16GB of storage for a machine that doesn't run Windows at high levels of performance or usability. Other versions are going to sell for close to $900. Seriously, who's going to buy one of these things, except a gadget enthusiast? And not very many of them.

Consumers don't want a device that is too big for the pocket, provides less functionality than a netbook, and is priced like a laptop.

In the US, we don't pay a premium for small things with fewer features because the device is smaller. As a culture, we pay a premium for bigger stuff. (Japan is generally the opposite, to be fair -- that's partly how Sony can bring an 11" OLED TV to market with a price tag of $2,500).

One of my long-standing laws of consumer electronics is that there's a worldwide market for 50,000 of anything when it comes to gadgets. In the case of MIDs, however, it doesn't even appear that there's a for even that many. DigiTimes recently reported sales of just 30,000 MIDs worldwide compared to the 150,000 - 200,000 units Intel had estimated. Intel claims that the weak sales were due to the global economic downturn but I agree with Thomas Ricker's opinion: consumers don't want a device that is too big for the pocket, provides less functionality than a netbook, and is priced like a laptop. Adding telephony to the mix, as Intel announced with Moblin 2.1. won't change that at all.

Of course, a lot depends on how you define a MID. I think there's actually millions of MIDs out there, but it depends on whether you count devices that essentially are MIDs in terms of functionality (pocketable, connected, designed for web, email, media and other apps) as opposed to being branded as MID or running an Atom processor. What am I referring to?

It should be obvious. The most popular MID on the market isn't called a MID.

It's called an iPod Touch.


Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. His weblog can be found at gartenblog.net, and he can be emailed at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.

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