Mobile Internet Devices Stuck in the Twilight Zone

Last week I went to the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. A major theme that grabbed my attention was the focus on a new product category — the mobile Internet device, or MID. Intel believes MIDs are the next big thing in connected mobile devices. Personally, I’m not so sure.

Intel cited a wide variety of data points, such as the explosive growth in social networking and increasing interest in accessing the Internet on the move, and then went on to present its vision of a world where everyone will have a MID as well as a PC or notebook and a mobile phone.

Selection of mobile Internet devices

I’ve always been sceptical about this category of device and I struggle to see where they fit. Over the years I’ve seen many attempts to break into the space. The picture on the right shows examples such as the Pogo, HTC’s Shift and Nokia’s Communicators and Internet Tablets. None of them has sold particularly well, and Intel’s earlier foray into this area, the ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) for Project Origami, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire.

Having reviewed several first-generation MIDs at the Intel event, I’m even more sceptical than I was before. The devices I looked at came from variety of manufacturers (Aigo, BenQ, Clarion, Lenovo and others) and were large, unwieldy products a long way from the “pocketable” moniker used to describe the category. Although I appreciate that browsing on a 5- to 7-inch screen is attractive, the trade-off is just too great when compared with other devices, be they sub-notebooks or iPhones.

Unfortunately for Intel (and others such as Nokia, with its N810 Internet Tablet) the iPhone has blown this product category out of the water. It’s reset consumer expectations for what this type of device should offer and made the current generation of MIDs look like dinosaurs. Most people I know are perfectly happy to browse on the 3.5-inch screen offered by the iPhone or iPod touch — particularly given how easy it is to zoom in and out with multi-touch.

Intel’s concept video of the futuristic “communication MID” (below) did little to convince me in San Francisco. I just can’t see where this long, thin product concept (an evolution of today’s MIDs) would fit.

Perhaps it’s unfair to make sweeping assumptions based on my impressions of first-generation MIDs, and they will undoubtedly improve. Intel’s new Moorestown processor, which will replace the Menlow solution used in current MIDs, promises new levels of power consumption and performance. This will allow Intel to drive its x86 architecture into smaller devices and perhaps even into smartphones.

I can’t help thinking that Intel needs to be careful how it pushes MIDs in their current incarnation. Clarion’s MiND product is a MID, but the company is positioning it as a personal navigation device (PND) to compete with products from the likes of TomTom and Garmin. I find it more credible that the MID form factor could be successful in this area, and it offers Intel’s partners an addressable market of approximately 40 million units in 2008. Similarly, Intel may have a good opportunity to position its MID architecture as a basis for portable games machines, given the strong graphics heritage of the x86 platform.

Accessing the Internet isn’t just about browsing. MIDs will face competition from mobile phones, gaming devices, PNDs and music players armed with custom applications and widgets. I think many buyers will opt for a small, cheap device rather than an expensive bulky one that offers a PC-like experience.

People want to access the Internet on the go, and personally I’m a great advocate of such “casual” usage. However, right now my view is that consumers see little reason to part with their hard-earned cash for a MID. At the moment, they can get everything they need from laptops (which will outsell desktop PCs next year) and high-end phones (which are becoming more and more capable). MIDs seem to inhabit the twilight zone between these two types of product, and unless they get a dramatic makeover I think they’ll be there for quite a while.