Things 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.