Image: Archos 5 Internet Media Tablet
Archos
Users can check e-mail, surf the Web and stream live TV and radio on the super-lightweight, two-button Archos 5 Internet Media Tablet. But will consumers cotton to such ‘miniature Internet devices’ when smartphones and netbooks are growing in popularity?
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 1/6/2010 9:13:49 AM ET 2010-01-06T14:13:49

Remember the Newton?

In 1993, Apple Inc. began selling what it called a Personal Digital Assistant — an “all-in-one” handheld device that kept your contacts and your calendar handy, let you send e-mail and eventually let you browse the Web. It had no keyboard; instead, you wrote directly on the screen.

The Newton was phased out in 1998. It was ahead of its time.

Now its time has returned. Newton is back — only now it’s called iPhone and Droid and Archos.

After years of being about the Next Big Thing, the annual International Consumer Electronics Show this week is all about the next little thing — small-in-one devices that are blurring the distinctions among tiny netbook computers, dedicated media players, e-book readers and cell phones.

It’s all because content is the new king. As different people use electronics in different ways, publishers are under the gun to deliver whatever content people want on whatever devices they have.

Some want a full computer in their pockets. That’s why we have netbooks, whose sales rose by 72 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to the DisplaySearch PC Shipment and Forecast Report. Sales of desktop systems and traditional notebooks, by contrast, fell by about 11 percent.

Others use their mobile devices to organize their schedules or to watch video and listen to music. That’s what gave us iPhones and Zunes. Or they want directions to their destinations (GPS devices). Or to streamline all their books (Kindles).

A huge segment just wants something portable for nonstop tweeting and Facebooking.

But as people become increasingly wired, they’re realizing they just don’t have enough pockets (or thumbs) for all those standalone devices. That’s why the drive that is reshaping consumer technology is toward so-called converged devices.

“The game has totally changed,” said David Krebs, director of mobile and wireless research for technology analysts VDC Research.

Stand-alone mobile software packages no longer run separate phone functions, like calling and personal data, Krebs said. Instead, they’re crafted together as an integrated platform.

If the new devices now on the market and those expected in the next few weeks are any indication, they could very well be slimmer, lighter, more powerful heirs of the Newton.

Are infant MIDs already outdated?
The shorthand is “miniature Internet device,” or MID. Products like the Archos 5 Internet Media Tablet, which was released in September, can play your music and video files stored on a hard drive as large as 250 gigabytes; boast access to the full Web (with support for Flash-based sites) and workplace applications like e-mail and conferencing; stream live TV and radio over WiFi (some with built-in Tivo-like DVRs); and provide GPS navigation.

The Archos 5 runs on Google’s Android operating system, which offers more than 16,000 more productivity, gaming and communications apps. It has just two buttons, it’s only 5.6 x 3.1 inches, and it weighs about 6 ounces.

The Archos 5, however, is just the beginning. At 8.2 x 4.6 inches, the viliv X70 EX runs Windows XP. And the UMID M1 — at 6.3 x 3.7 inches, it fits in a jacket pocket — runs Windows XP and adds a real qwerty keyboard in a cell phone-style clamshell design.

MIDs remain in the early-adopter stage right now, but they’ll get a big push at CES. Viliv will debut the N5, with a 1024-resolution 5-inch screen and its own qwerty keyboard, and Dell is expected to pull the lid off an Android MID that would include 3G connectivity.

And yet, the question is whether progress has already roared past such devices, which fall somewhat awkwardly between netbooks and smartphones in size.

With version 2.0 of its Android OS, Google jump-started the smartphone market in late 2009 when it released the Motorola Droid through Verizon, a powerhouse phone that replicates most (though not all) of the Archos 5’s features, packed in a handset the same size as an iPhone.

Only 22 percent of Americans had even heard of Android as recently as August, according to comScore Inc., which tracks the wireless market. But it will have a big impact on smartphone trends and sales this year. At least a dozen Android phones, some running an even more advanced 2.1 Android release, are expected in the first months of 2010.

“The Android platform is rapidly shaking up the smartphone market,” said Mark Donovan, comScore’s senior vice president for mobile. “Android is clearly gaining momentum among developers and consumers.”

Android drives ‘leading trend’ in mobile
The appeal of Android is its flexibility. As an evolution of the open-source Linux platform, it can easily be adapted to a variety of forms:

  • Phones like the Droid and the Nexus One “Google Phone,” which was announced Tuesday to Apple-like fanfare .
  • MIDs. Camangi Corp. released the first Android MID last month, while Inbrics, a South Korean manufacturer, is expected to unveil its own this week at CES.
  • Tablets. In addition to its Android MID, Dell also plans to announce an Android tablet this week.HTC, maker of the Google Phone hardware, will also likely debut an Android-based tablet.
  • Full-blown netbooks. Asus, maker of the popular EEE netbooks, is expected to release an Android-powered netbook in the first quarter of 2010.

The rise of Android is a “leading trend” in mobile, technology analysts Canalys Research said in a recent report on the smartphone market, because of its “free license model, tight integration with Google applications and ... high degree of vendor and operator customization.”

By December, comScore found, Android had gained so much ground that it was running neck-and-neck with the iPhone in consumer preference among those who planned to buy a smartphone in the near future.

A world of options
With Android joining Apple’s iPhone/iPod Touch platform and with Microsoft planning a significant upgrade to its creaky Windows Mobile platform this year, developers face a new landscape in building applications and creating content for mobile devices.

Although Apple itself won’t officially be at CES, organizers are setting aside 25,000 square feet of convention space for companies that make Macintosh, iPhone and iPod Touch applications and accessories — more than four times as much as at past shows.

More broadly, CES plans a large menu of speakers, breakout sessions and exhibits dedicated to mobile content.

“The wireless information industry is thriving,” which has “sparked new wireless application and information product opportunities,” market analysts ZPryme Research & Consulting wrote in a November report. “... From advertising to applications, every business impacted by this space is trying to understand their position in the changing mobile information landscape.”

The thorniest problem remains video. Neither the iPhone nor the Droid — yet — support Adobe’s Flash platform, which is widely used to deliver video content. And for users browsing on 3G cell phone connections rather than WiFi, delivery can remain slow and choppy.

To address the problem, more than 30 of the heaviest hitters in broadcasting will be at CES to push a unified mobile video delivery platform . Dubbed the Open Mobile Video Coalition, its members include the National Association of Broadcasters, Gannett, Fox, Hearst-Argyle, Cox Television, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Media General, Meredith Broadcasting and NBC Universal.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of NBC News and Microsoft Corp.)

The goal at CES is to lead the industry toward a standard platform that would “enable viewers to watch their favorite live local and national TV programs wherever they are — on portable DTVs, mobile phones, personal media players, portable computers, in-car screens and other devices,” the coalition said.

Goodbye Newton, hello iSlate?
And what of the Newton itself?

There’s a thriving online community of owners of original Newtons, who hack them to keep the old machines current. Development of the Newton continues, completely unsupported by Apple, and many users have upgraded their devices with WiFi, full Internet suites and color screens.

Apple apparently has noticed. Twelve years after it officially killed the Newton, it is widely expected to return to the MID/small tablet market this month with a much-ballyhooed announcement of the iSlate.

The expectation, which Apple characteristically refused to comment on, has driven the company’s stock to record highs.

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