Can Ultraportables Grow Ultrafast?

Between the laptop and the mobile phone lies…something. Intel and Qualcomm may differ on what that something is, but both firms have determined to tap into growth — real or imagined — in the ultramobile PC space, following on the heels of device makers ranging from established players such as HP and BenQ to smaller ones like LimePC and ASUS Taiwan.

Along the way, the Intel Atom and Qualcomm Snapdragon chipsets will compete against processors from VIA Technologies and Freescale Semiconductor, both of whom make chips for ultramobile PCs already. So far, the winner looks like it will be anyone who wants a computer with a screen width ranging between four and nine inches, as new devices will flood the market. But beyond education, how large will that market be?

VIA Technologies is one of the older players making chips for these pocket PCs. The number of ultramobile PCs based on VIA processors is currently approaching 40, more than 30 of them are shipping today. Freescale has a smaller foothold; one device containing its processors is currently being shipped, and it has a partnership with Intel to provide power management chips for Atom-based devices. Intel has an older line of chips that power the ASUS-produced EEE, but its newly launched Atom processor represents its true effort to get into this market.

At a developer conference last week in Shanghai, Intel said it plans to ship Atom chips in June; it also has 25 mobile Internet devices planned around the processors from manufacturers including Lenovo, Clarion and LG. Also last week, I spoke with Qualcomm’s COO Dr. Sanjay Jha, who outlined Qualcomm’s interest in this space.

Jha said 15 device makers will use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chipset for powering ultramobile PCs that range from 4 inches to 5 inches in screen width. The devices should be available at the end of this year. While he didn’t disclose the names of the manufacturers, industry chatter favors Samsung and HTC. Which makes sense since Qualcomm is targeting the smaller, 4-inch to 5-inch form factor with which these cell phone makers are experienced.

Chipmakers are placing bets on this space because smartphones and ubiquitous broadband are making it possible for consumers to rely more closely on the web for life on the go. Personally, I think improvements to smartphone user interfaces would be a better bet. In the developing world and in education, such portable PCs could find a home, but for the rest of the world, a smartphone that’s easy to use is the likely winner. That or a MacBook Air.