Intel’s strategy for Atom processors and WiMAX hinges partly on a new class of handheld computers called mobile Internet devices (MIDs). Larger than cellphones but smaller than subnotebook PCs, MIDs are supposed to make the Internet available anytime, anywhere.
Actually, MIDs aren’t new. They’re the third major attempt to establish the nebulous product category of personal digital assistants (PDAs).
The first wave of handheld computers broke in the early 1990s. Most were underpowered, clunky tablet-size prototypes that never made it to market. The second wave crested later in the 1990s with Apple’s Newton and Palm’s initially successful Pilot. They failed to sustain their early popularity when cellphones absorbed most of their functions while adding the crucial ability to communicate.
Today, the few surviving descendants of PDAs are smartphones, such as the RIM Blackberry, Palm Treo/Centro, and especially Apple’s iPhone. They emphasize telephony but also provide email, texting, and web browsing. Generally, they substitute tiny keyboards for the handwriting recognition once considered vital for PDAs.
But smartphones have three problems: input, output, and throughput. Although young people don’t mind typing with their thumbs, it gets tiresome, and the most sought-after affluent consumers tend to be Boomers whose eyesight and dexterity are waning. Ditto for output: Smartphone screens are too tiny for comfortable web browsing. And throughput is limited by cellular networks, which need more bandwidth for serious Internet usage.
The MID prototypes I’ve seen are somewhat larger devices with bigger screens. They have touch screens with better user interfaces, like the iPhone’s. WiMAX can blanket wide areas with broadband Internet service, especially when using reassigned analog-TV frequencies.
Critics say that no mobile communications device larger than a cellphone will ever become popular, especially with men, who generally must carry such devices in pockets or belt pouches. Women, of course, have purses. But lately I see more men lugging purse substitutes—briefcases, backpacks, messenger bags, and man bags. If MIDs conveniently combine telephony with universal Internet access, I think people will find a way to carry them. Not long ago, packing a phone everywhere seemed equally impractical.