MIDs Versus PCs

By Patrick Moorhead - December 22, 2009
This is the final part in an eight part series where I look at emerging Mobile Internet Device (MID) technology and predict whether or not MIDs may displace netbooks and notebooks in the future.  Check out the introduction, and part 2 (where I take an extremist view on why I believe MIDs will dominate the earth), and part 3 (where I take the extreme view of why I believe that, in fact, PCs have no reason to worry about MIDs.) — certainly not even in the near- or even mid-term future.  In part 2 and 3 I obviously took an extremist’s view hoping that by turning up the contrast ratio, you got a better flavor for the debate.  I then drilled down on specific devices and provided their plusses and minuses from my user perspective: UMID M1viliv S5 Premium-Sviliv X70 EX 3G, and the Archos 5 Internet Tablet. I’d now like to give some final thoughts on MIDs and how I think they will impact notebooks in the future. I believe that this argument comes down to a few points: MIDs will improve upon their current design challenges. I believe that some of the design challenges can and will be improved:  
  • Touch-screen will get more usable
  • More small “display friendly” operating systems or overlays will emerge
  • All will have WWAN options
  • 720P video will be enabled
  • Accelerated Flash graphics will be enabled
  • Docking to monitors and other devices will be better enabled
  • MIDs will become thinner and lighter
But, will it be enough to keep pace with the innovation curve of new applications that will emerge to solve end user pain points that can only be effectively run on a notebook? Or on a smartphone? Probably not. Many competitors to MIDs for disposable income and design resources. When MIDs and UMPCs first came onto the scene, there wasn’t this dizzying array of “capable smartphones”, netbooks, affordable ultrathin notebooks, and now smartbooks.  All of these devices now fight for the dollars that product planners once only saw as a space for MIDs and UMPCs. Now, if a consumer has around $499 to spend, what will they spend it on?  Internal research suggests today they will want a smartphone or a notebook. OEMs and ODMs need to make tough choices on where their design and marketing resources will go.  Reality is that they cannot invest in everything and make choices typically based on short-term and sometimes longer-term ROI. Articles are popping up suggesting manufacturer interest in designing MIDs is lowering due to lousy sales and competition for design resources for these other devices. The past is not always the best indication of the future, but is certainly an important data point. Future MID vs. future smartphone vs. future notebook Smartphones, notebooks, and MIDs will certainly continue to increase their capabilities to address end user pain points.  Question needs to be asked if there is enough utility difference between a future smartphone, a future MID, and a future notebook.  They all need their space to survive unless you believe that consumers will buy at least two or all three device types. In many cases, they will. I assume that MIDs will be one step ahead of smartphones with software processing capability and features and two to three steps behind a future notebook. To me, that sets up the real battle, which is smartphone vs MID, not MID vs notebook.  Where would you place your bet: future Apple iPhone or a future MID?   MID Prices MIDs today are a luxury item as a secondary device.  The least expensive one at dynamism.com is $449, the UMID M1. The $449 model you get a 4.8″ display, 1.2Ghz single core CPU, 512MB RAM, and 8GB storage… this is NOT your primary PC device.   Pricing is a function of utility, cost, and profit target. For cost to decline, the volumes need to increase to take advantage of economies of scale.  Back in June, Slashgear speculated that MID sales were 15% of what was expected.  As of June, we read that 30,000 MIDs had been sold. That doesn’t mean that that will always be the case, but without volume it is hard to drive costs down through economies of scale. Netbooks are an interesting example in price/cost dynamics. The industry “talk” is that netbooks started out as an experiment.  A processor manufacturer had some low end CPUs they couldn’t sell, so they had a choice to grind them or sell them. They sold around 5 million of them for a real good price. The original 7″ 800×480 displays on the first netbooks were supposedly leveraged from the portable DVD player market, making them inexpensive. Volumes quickly ramped and costs came down. That volume ramp and leverage isn’t happening yet on MIDs. Finally, when it comes to docking to compensate for the MID UI and display size, this gets expensive quickly. Assuming future MIDs become easier to dock via less expensive docks and HDMI or Displayport connectivity, the user is still faced with around $200 or more for the dock (at current price levels), a larger display, a decent keyboard and mouse. Conclusion If you thought I was going to wimp out on making a prediction, you are wrong.  I believe that the MID will ultimately transform itself into a smartphone. The smartphone just has too much momentum to stop its encroachment on the MID space.  In my opinion, the only exceptions will be vertical applications like medical, industrial, and military, where the mobility, extra processing power, PC connectivity, and a larger screen are required to accomplish a specific task.  As for the impact to notebooks, until inexpensive fold up or rollable displays and gesture input allows a user to turn their 4.8″ to 7″ MID into an easily-controllable, 12-13″ display experience, I suspect there is little risk to notebooks in the longer term future. Finally, I believe future MIDs won’t have the horsepower or features required to tackle the future applications and future usage models only run on future notebooks and even if the cloud can provide the horsepower needed, pervasive, mobile, and fast access to the cloud is years away as LTE doesn’t start its ramp until 2014.
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.