Tuesday, July 22, 2008

DYI $200 Internet device

Let’s face it, the OEM community has failed to deliver a knock out mobile Internet device. Microsoft didn’t deliver with the UMPC and its sleek Haiku concept. Even Apple has been unable to deliver a larger version of the iPhone–the iTablet that many have dreamed of. And come to think of it, Intel is poised to seed this market with its MID initiative and from what I’ve seen so far I’m skeptical they’ll hit the sweet spot too–despite its fortunate timing.

But no one, no one, has delivered what quite a few people are looking for: An inexpensive, portable, Internet-tuned device that’s large enough to use on the web and light enough to want to keep using.

Of all the devices I’ve owned over the years, the iPhone is the closest, but frankly its display is too small.

So what’s a person to do? How about try designing your own? That’s exactly what Michael Arrington and the folks over at TechCrunchIt have in mind.

Michael writes:

I’m tired of waiting - I want a dead simple and dirt cheap touch screen web tablet to surf the web. Nothing fancy like the Dell latitude XT, which costs $2,500. Just a Macbook Air-thin touch screen machine that runs Firefox and possibly Skype on top of a Linux kernel. It doesn’t exist today, and as far as we can tell no one is creating one. So let’s design it, build a few and then open source the specs so anyone can create them.

Here’s the basic idea: The machine is as thin as possible, runs low end hardware and has a single button for powering it on and off, headphone jacks, a built in camera for video, low end speakers, and a microphone. It will have Wifi, maybe one USB port, a built in battery, half a Gigabyte of RAM, a 4-Gigabyte solid state hard drive. Data input is primarily through an iPhone-like touch screen keyboard. It runs on linux and Firefox. It would be great to have it be built entirely on open source hardware, but including Skype for VOIP and video calls may be a nice touch, too.

As I’ve blogged for awhile, I’m all for an idea like this and frankly since no one has been able to put it together I agree it’s time to look elsewhere. Is the community the right place? We’ll see. Even if a good reference design is all that comes out of this effort, I’m all for it. We need something.

It sure looks like I’m not alone in this. Since the first post earlier this afternoon there are upwards of 700 comments sprinkled about on serveral posts about this idea. Yep. People are interested.

I think there are lots of existing players here to blame as to why we haven’t seen something like this. Some of this is due to the sluggish momentum of the large players. For instance, Microsoft has been unable to deliver an OS that makes sense for devices like this. Intel hasn’t delivered on the performance/cost side for low-cost mobile devices. And the OEMS. Don’t get me started. Even on the sales side we’ve seen the Best Buyification of notebooks to the point that they’re all pretty much alike. Even Apple can’t keep up–particularly with all of the calls for a larger iPhone-like Tablet.

Will an open project like this succeed? Who knows. Cost is going to be the biggest challenge I imagine. Even if TechCrunch were to get commitments from say 5,000 people online to buy a first gen device, I doubt any of the manufacturers will give the price breaks they need to reach the $200 price most of us want. Why should they? In no time flat it would make all the over priced UMPCs and similar devices look, well, over priced.

I’m game though. Sounds like a fun project to try. Sorry Intel. Sorry Apple. We’re tired of waiting.

Wouldn’t it be funny though if Apple announced something like this in the days to come? Yep. When something is achievable for one, it’s achievable for all.