A 6-inch-wide computer

FlipStart has 30-gigabyte hard drive and runs full-fledged software

March 08, 2007|By Seattle Post-Intelligencer

More than two decades after leaving Microsoft Corp., Paul Allen still has designs on the computer business. But this time, he's aiming for something smaller.

To be precise, it's less than 6 inches wide and weighs just about a pound and a half.

It's a miniature computer, dubbed FlipStart, and it's slated for release this month, after years of development. The device rests on the palm but looks like a tiny laptop, contains a 30-gigabyte hard drive and runs full-fledged software on a microprocessor good enough for a traditional desktop computer.

In other words, this is not a BlackBerry, even though mobile e-mail is expected to be one of the most common uses.

"Really, FlipStart gives you everything that your laptop does," said Robin Budd, senior director with FlipStart Labs, a Seattle-based subsidiary of Allen's Vulcan Inc. "We're not promoting the idea that you would do CAD design on it, but for office applications and most of what people do with their laptops, it's great."

Yes, FlipStart runs Windows. It also comes with built-in mobile Internet connectivity, offering both high-speed cellular technology and shorter-range wireless.

But at nearly $2,000, it's definitely not a budget device.

And FlipStart won't be without competition. Sony Corp. and Samsung are among the companies targeting the same market. San Francisco-based OQO Inc. is due this month to ship its latest hand-held computer, the OQO model 02.

Microsoft offers specialized software for miniature computers, which are sometimes called ultra-mobile PCs.

Industry analyst Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., has tried the FlipStart and said he likes what Allen's company has done. However, he said the prices for it and similar devices will limit the market for now.

"At the price points that these guys have, this is really not a mainstream consumer product. It's not even necessarily a mainstream business product," he said.

The main difference in FlipStart is its hardware design. Many other small computers are small, slate-style devices. If they have keyboards, they often sit beneath or slide out from under the screen. But FlipStart offers a clamshell hardware design that folds up like a little laptop.

One advantage is that people can use FlipStart while it's sitting on a desk, typing with their fingers, in addition to holding it in their hands, typing with their thumbs, as people commonly do with other ultra-mobile computers.

"This really changes the way people use the device," Budd said. "It's a huge differentiator and it's a familiar form factor. Our user research has shown that people really like that."

Jory Bell, OQO's chief executive, said he thinks more people ultimately will prefer the slate-style devices, like those from OQO and others, over FlipStart's clamshell design.

But Bell said he's glad to see people experimenting with different designs in the category, and he pointed out that Allen was an early believer in the idea of full-fledged, miniature computers. Bell recalled the general skepticism about the market when OQO started pursuing the concept seven years ago.

"At that time, Paul was really the only person who had the same vision, that the full Windows experience was something that people did want in a truly mobile form factor," Bell said. "And so I give him a lot of credit for persevering alongside OQO and getting to this point."

Allen originally unveiled his plans, under the name Mini-PC, at the Consumer Electronics Show in early 2003. It was slated for release by Christmas of that year. However, it ran into a series of hurdles, including the fact that Transmeta Corp. stopped making the microprocessor that the device was supposed to use. (FlipStart uses an Intel Pentium M processor.)

"It just wasn't ready to go to market," Budd said. "It was a great prototype, a great proof of concept, but it just wasn't up to our standards to take to market. We did essentially a complete redesign."

FlipStart is to be available online March 27 at flipstart.com, and through resellers. Budd acknowledged plans for other devices under the FlipStart brand but declined to detail them.

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