IDF - UMPC fans hope for new Intel platform

UMPC fans are hoping to see a new processor platform from Intel at Monday's IDF trade show in Beijing

Business analysts at Intel's technology conference next week will focus on the company's powerful server chips, but industry blogs are showing more excitement over word that the company will launch a new platform for ultra mobile PCs (UMPCs).

Intel is set to announce at its Intel Developer Forum (IDF) conference, which starts on Monday in Beijing, that it will launch a new UMPC platform called McCaslin using a Stealey microprocessor running at 600MHz or 800MHz and capable of supporting Microsoft's Windows Vista OS, according to several technology blogs.

Intel acknowledged it was working in that area, but declined to confirm the details of those reports. "We will have an announcement this month on the 'rumoured' product, [but] until then I won't comment on speculation and rumours," Intel spokesperson, Connie Brown, said in an email.

However, Intel executives have been hinting at this move for months. At an IDF show in San Francisco last year, Intel sparked many headlines with the news it would collaborate with Microsoft's Origami software platform, that eventually reached markets as Samsung Electronics' Q1.

And in January, the company said it planned to release a smaller, more power-efficient UMPC platform that would allow devices like TabletKiosk's EO series to offer full wireless Web access within 18 months, according to comments from general manager of Intel's Ultra Mobility Group, Anand Chandrasekher, at a wireless symposium in California.

The initiative may not produce quick profits for Intel. Critics claim that vendors are trying to push UMPCs into an awkward market space called the one-kilogram wasteland, with neither the long battery life of smartphones nor the fast processing power of laptop PCs.

Intel has already dipped a toe in these waters, providing a Pentium M processor for Vulcan's FlipStart. But like the competing Samsung Q1, Sony UX and OQO Model 02, that product has seen limited sales to niche buyers.

Another challenge for Intel is that its chip-making competitor Via Technologies has already won space on many existing UMPCs with its C7-M chip. Intel hoped to compete for those accounts with its McCaslin platform, one analyst said.

Regardless of which chip they used, UMPCs would probably not entice mainstream customers until their prices drop to a range of $US400-$US600 around 2010, research director with Current Analysis, Samir Bhavnani, said. Without that alluring price, most consumers see UMPCs as tweeners, too big to fit in pockets but too small to offer easy typing and productivity.

"The feedback on [first generation] devices has ranged from slightly negative to slightly positive, but nobody has judged these devices to be totally awesome," Bhavnani said.

Intel is hustling to reach the nascent market now because it hopes to succeed in second-generation UMPCs, he said.

Intel has already proved it can succeed with hardware bundles for mobile devices, like its Centrino product for notebook PCs. And Intel is expected to upgrade that product to the Santa Rosa Centrino platform in early May, adding better wireless noteworking and battery life. Likewise, on April 5, Intel announced the U7600 and U7500 ultra-low power versions of its Core 2 Duo processor, designed for small form-factor mini-notebook, sub-notebook, and slate/tablet notebooks. Gateway is using the chips in its E-100M ultraportable PC.

Despite all the rumours generated by Intel's UMPC project, financial analysts at IDF will be paying more attention to the company's efforts to protect its market share in high-end PCs and servers from the pending launch of the quad-core Barcelona Opteron processor by AMD. Intel may soon announce an improved line of quad-core 65nm process Clovertown chips by the third quarter of 2007 and a 45nm scale "Harpertown" processor by the fourth quarter, according to a semiconductor industry report from Citigroup Research. On the notebook side, Intel would launch its Santa Rosa platform on May 6, Citigroup said.

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