The Trouble With Tiny Windows Computers

By  |  Friday, April 24, 2009 at 4:14 pm

OQOThings don’t look good for OQO, the company behind a series of handheld computers that ran full-blown Windows. As Eliot Buskirk reports over at Wired.com, the company has lost its CEO and resellers have stopped taking preorders for its next-generation model; rumors are that it’s running out of time to make it as a stand-alone entity.

If OQO folds, it’ll be sad–but the funny thing is that it’s already a pock-marked survivor in the product category of tiny Windows devices. The similar FlipStart PC (backed by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen) was on the market for only a year. And as far as I can tell, Sony has discontinued its pocket-sized UX handheld. Microsoft’s once-hyped Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) platform, meanwhile, is alive but far from thriving.

And yet, the funny thing is that there’s never been more interest in extremely portable computing devices than there is today, nor as many attractive choices. It’s just that very few of them bear much resemblance to the OQO and its direct rivals. Smartphones like the iPhone 3G and T-Mobile G1 are pocket-sized computers by any definition I can imagine; netbooks such as Asus’s Eee PC 1000HE are bigger than the OQO but smaller than garden-variety notebooks.

So how come OQO-class machines have never caught on? I can think of several reasons:

Windows was never designed to run on devices that small. It wants a display with both decent resolution and a fair amount of physical space. They assume the availability of a decent QWERTY keyboard (and I’ve never seen an OQO-class gadget that even had as good a keyboard as I think could be crammed into the available space). They benefit from a mouse, or at least a large touchpad. The whole idea behind these devices is providing the benefits of the world’s most widely-used operating system–such as scads of applications–but the fundamental usability hassles canceled the virtues out for most folks.

They’re full of advanced engineering that didn’t deliver enough user benefit. It’s a small miracle that OQO was able to get full-strength Windows to run on a machine that small at all, and a tribute to the company’s designers. But smartphone engineers have a head start, since they aren’t stuck with the challenge of making a desktop OS run on a tiny device. And netbooks, almost by definition, don’t include any sophistcated engineering–and don’t have to, since they’re large enough that miniaturization isn’t required. (There’s a reason why most netbooks are actually rather chunky.)

They’re too dang expensive. A couple of years ago, the OQO and FlipStart both cost $2000, or more than most people pay for a traditional notebook. Today, OQO starts at a grand. You could buy both a smartphone and a netbook for that, and have money left over.

I know that there are people who are passionate fans of the OQO and similar devices–but there don’t seem to be enough of them to add up to a robust business, and that just isn’t that surprising. Will OQO’s woes scare other companies off from building other computers of this sort? Maybe not: Intel is forging ahead with its Mobile Internet Device platform.  I wish it luck. But I’m thinking that consumers have already rendered their verdict–and as usual, theirs is the only one that counts.

 
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10 Comments For This Post

  1. drew Says:

    As I have been playing with my new HP netbook (10.1 in) I realize that I could not go much smaller. I always thought these devices were neat, but the keyboards are just too small. I can just type on the HP in a comfortable manner. (although I would not want to type a novel on it)

    As I get older (now just somewhat north of 40) I find small screens and little buttons harder, and harder to read. I am finding, as I use my netbook more and more, that around 10 inches seems to be a sweet spot.

  2. Adam Says:

    You are right on that Windows was not made to run on a qwery thumb based keyboard!

    I would have bought one even at the price they charge but only if they made it more like a clamshell shape so that the longer size would give me a touch type keyboard. I would love to see a modern HP Jornada 720 or Psion 5mx type UMPC running full Windows!

    I am fine with a small screen, infact I would want that over any PC I need a bag to carry but I will not sacrafice and not have a touch type keyboard. I would be fine with a reduced touch type keyboard as I did use and own a Psion 5mx and that was very easy to type on and fit in my jacket pocket so easily.

  3. Drew Says:

    I teach High School (9th graders), and they will show me stuff on thier phones and IPods, and it is like I channel my parents. I have to squint sometimes. I had to look up the 5mx, but I could work with that size. That screen is a nice size. They keep talking of a Apple tablet, I keep thinking that would be really cool.

    Since I only go to say 20 or so websites every day, I could touch screen my way through favorites with little trouble.

    Even with the netbook, I have been analyzing what I actually do. The vast majority of my time is “passive”; I read webpages, check them market, check the scores and such. I don’t type all that much

  4. Al Says:

    If all you do is view web pages and documents you would be better off with a smartphone at less than half the price. OQO to me has the power of a laptop but the wrong shape completely. A full Vista computer is useless without a touch type keyboard.

  5. Drew Says:

    too small, or I am too old! I do a little writing, and for that, the keyboard really comes in handy. The keyboard on the HP 1030NR is very nice (why I chose it over the Acer). Your point is well taken though; if all I did was view pages, the Smartphone would be the way to go; interestingly, around 2002 I had a IPaq qhich I loved. I tried to find one last year, and that entire PDA segment seems to have all but disappeared.

  6. John Salamon Says:

    I don’t think there is a big market for them. especially how iPhone has taken off. if I want to use a computer I go to my desk. The only thing I would use these devices for, would be to send an email.

    Adelaide Computer

  7. X Says:

    OQO Battery Problem,

    Do not buy OQO because I sent out a double capacity battery THREE MONTHS ago for repair and ordered TWO EXTRA. OQO still has not sent back our batteries.
    They could not fulfill their warranty contract. I repeat. Do not buy OQO computer for they will not fulfill their warranty.

  8. Backlin Says:

    I’m completely with you on the UI not being developed for the small screen. Vista’s Start Menu takes up a third of the screen on a resolution of 1024×768. Even if Windows 7 is being developed with touchscreens in mind, it’s big touchscreens they’re developing for.

  9. Steve Says:

    When I read that wire services were enjoying great success with OQOs for transmitting photos, I found a source and bought one. The 110/240 V power supply fried plugged into a 220 line in the Middle East. I had to buy a replacement from the company, which fried in a matter of minutes when plugged into 220 in Amsterdam. I sent them a power supply for replacement on or about Sept. 20, 2008, and as of May 16, 2009, I haven’t heard a word from them. Computer was a nice idea. I saw a UK blog where users were replacing the defective power supplies every month as they blew out with UK current. OQO never admitted there was anything wrong with the power supplies or came up with any acceptable resolution. I tried to check up by sending an e-mail to their customer support and it was returned as undeliverable. I can’t find anything online that says they went out of business, but I can’t find anything that would indicate they’re still in business, either.

  10. Lorenz Gude Says:

    I had a few Palms and when my sister got a Jordana I was very interested but it was just too small. I couldn’t believe my luck when the eee PC cane out and I bought the first model. The keyboard is a bit too small and the newer models are have gotten it just about right. My criteria is that the keyboard must be usable and the it must be light enough to use as a reader in an easy chair or in bed. It also must be pocketable – even it it means buying a vest with big pockets or tactical pants. I bought my sister the HP and my son got the Lenovo. I will get one of the newer ones at some point and will be waiting to see if they do a tablet. I have the 13 inch HP tx1000 tablet but that is too big and clunky to comfortably use in an easy chair or in bed. It will have to be smaller and lighter than that.

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