iPhone versus UMPC: Which one wins? Part 1.

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As a long time advocate of the Tablet PC and UMPC platforms, I was eager to check out the iPhone. I was quite interested in the new device in large part because of its use of touch and its “slate” (keyboardless) design. So like many others I stood (and sat) in a long line last Friday to pick up an iPhone. I’ve blogged about some of my impressions about the iPhone in general over the last few days. Now I want to spend some time and discuss how the iPhone and the UMPC stack up against each other.

First, a comparison between an iPhone and a UMPC may seem a little odd. The devices have different purposes. The iPhone is primarily a phone. The UMPC is a general computing device. I realize that the devices don’t overlap completely, but I hope the differences don’t get in the way of allowing a comparison in the areas that they are similar or could be similar in the future.

I also realize I’m comparing a specific product (the iPhone) with a generic category of products (the UMPC). There are many different manufacturers of UMPCs and an equal number of designs. However, I’m going to look at each as more of a platform here. At least I’ll try to.

Second, before I go any further, let me cut to the chase and disclose my bias. When it comes to a comparison between the iPhone and the UMPC, I give the nod to the iPhone. In fact, for me the iPhone is in many ways what the UMPC tried to be. It provides touch, connectivity, mobility, and ease of use, packed as a consumer companion device all at a price point right around $500. Yes, the UMPC wins in total numbers of features and capabilities, however, the shear number of features in the UMPC doesn’t overcome the quality of the experience that the iPhone gives. I love my UMPC, but sorry, the iPhone is better. That’s just me. Your mileage may vary.

So let me go step by step and compare some of the things that struck me about the iPhone and the UMPC. Because there are so many things I want to say, I’ve decided to split this post up into two. I’ve copied this post to my other blog, so if you want to comment, you can do so there.

OK. Where to begin….how about at the beginning….the hype….

The hype
Normally a product comparison doesn’t include a comparison between how they are marketed, but in this case I can’t resist since both products had so much hype.

The iPhone was officially announced at MacWorld 2007, 6 months before it shipped. Actually, there had been rumors of an Apple iPhone for many months before. Many people standing in line with me on Friday, waiting for their iPhone, had mentioned that they’d first heard about the possibility of the iPhone about a year ago and they’d been waiting for the chance to buy one. It’s hard to say when the hype began, but clearly all the speculation before the official announcement appears to have caught people’s attention. And the first presentation made my Steve Jobs at MacWorld further appears to have increased people’s interest in the device. What’s interesting is that he went through a lot of the features in the iPhone. The touch capabilities. The pinch gesture. The browsing. The contact list, and on and on. It looked pretty good on stage. The question was: is it?

Following MacWorld there were a handful of TV commercials, some last minute demo videos on the Apple site, a tease by Steve Jobs at the D conference, but other than that, not much officially from Apple. The often disproportionate Apple-oriented voice on the Internet devoured every bit of iPhone news. The trend was set. People wanted to see the iPhone. Even a last minute announcement that Apple was making some hardware changes to the device to solve some problems didn’t discourage the crowd–they saw it as a positive. This was a sign that Apple was going to release a good product it was reasoned. I thought at the time, what if a company like Microsoft had announced some last minute changes, they’d probably have gotten a round of press questioning whether this was a signal that their future product was in jeopardy. Yes, the hype train was in full speed. The question still was: Would the iPhone live up to its hype?

That was answered to the satisfaction of many days before launch in a series of press “reviews” that proclaimed the iPhone almost as good as the hype. There were issues to be sure, the writers penned, but for the most part the iPhone was exceeding at least people’s 1.0 expectations.

The UMPC also had a lot of hype leading up to its launch. However, in this case Microsoft (and Intel) went with a viral campaign that talked of a new type of device, but didn’t give any details. Speculation ran wild as to what the new device (initially codenamed Origami) might be. Lots of speculation. Word spread like wildfire online. I think the first time I saw the UMPC publicly was on CNBC, but it was mentioned on national TV, local TV, in the newspapers, everywhere. There were a lot of details though, if I recall–just general statements about the device, it’s size, weight, and the like.

The “offical” launch I think was split between Intel at one of their IDF conferences and by Microsoft at CeBit in Germany. There was lots of press, but unlike with Apple the official announcements didn’t coincide with any particular release of the product since neither company was actually building a UMPC. Their partners were. So no TV commercials. No specific launch dates–in fact, product availability would dribble in, starting a couple months after the announcements.

The launch
Yes, the launch between the IPhone and the UMPC was much different. The iPhone launched on a specific day, June 29th. The UMPC launched…well…started shipping….uh….was available….hmmm, kind of hard to describe. A big part of the difference here is that the iPhone is brought to market by one company: Apple. The UMPC involves many different partners, each who can launch on a different day. Samsung had their launch day. TabletKiosk had theirs. There turned out to be no “Origami” product, so there was no “Origami” launch day. No lines. No t-shirts. No launch day enthusiasm. No cheers.

Do products need hype like this? I don’t think so. Do they need launch dates? Probably not. But for those of us who wonder sometimes where the Tablet PC marketing has been, it’s interesting to compare how these two products made their way to the customer’s homes.

Buying the device
Both products had lots of hype and now came the moment of truth. Buying the device. In terms of the iPhone, Apple decided to sell the iPhones in their stores as well as in the corporate AT&T stores. The plan appears to have placed several hundred thousand iPhones across various major metropolitan areas in the US. (The world-wide launch would have to wait.) Customers could also purchase the iPhone online. Some analysts have speculated that over 700,000 iPhones were sold the first few days in the US. I’m not sure if that includes the online numbers or not.

For the UMPC, the buying experience varied on the manufacturer. Samsung sold their Q1 direct as well as in select Best Buy stores, although I never saw any in the stores I visited. Most everyone else sells theirs online. For most people, you can’t just go down the street to check out a UMPC.

The out of the box experience
Here I think there’s a tie. Unboxing a Samsung Q1 UMPC, for instance, is on par with unboxing an iPhone. In fact, I’d almost give the edge to the UMPCs. In my book the iPhone packaging is almost a bit too sparse. Open the box and the question becomes: Where do I start. It’s not bad. Just sparse. And, yes, I realize that’s the way it’s designed to be. I just like a little more in my box after I spend $500 plus.

The first boot experience
Here the edge probably goes to the UMPC. Whereas it’s true that you can just press the on switch on the iPhone and in about two seconds something on the screen, the device isn’t much use until you activate it with AT&T. The online activation through iTunes simplifies the store purchase process, but complicates the first boot fun. You’ll also have to “download” or sync some music or movies onto the iPhone if you want to listen to any, because it doesn’t come with any–not even a movie trailer. I thought it would have at least that.

Booting Windows for the first time on a UMPC doesn’t give you that “oh wow, I see several things I want to try” feeling. You know it’s Windows. You know you’ll have to hunt to find something to do.

Actually, this is a bit misleading. For some UMPCs, there is a special “shell” app called the Origami Experience that Microsoft provides which provides a UI tuned to touch and the UMPC form factor. For those UMPCs that boot up into the Origami Experience, I can imagine first time users tapping away to explore what’s on their device.

Both devices require some set up, such as selecting and setting up the password to your WiFi network. It’s probably a tie here.

Neither device provides a great media experience out of the device. This is one area of improvement. I don’t understand why I don’t get a “free’ teaser movie on the iPhone (or video iPod), for instance. Aren’t I spending enough for a first class experience?

Retail versus enterprise
There’s always this debate over whether this or that product is for the enterprise or for retail customers. It all depends. Tablet PCs and now more and more it’s true for UMPCs are primarily sold to the enterprise. The iPhone is not. In fact, as of now you can’t activate an iPhone if you have a business account. To me though, the lines are really blurred here and as many people discovered when they tried to activate their iPhone only to find out they had the wrong account type, it’s a bit arbitrary.

What it often comes down to is how the products are sold and how they are managed. Up to this point, the UMPC wins the enterprise award and simply because of the fact that people can actually go down to a store and purchase an iPhone I’d say the iPhone wins the retail category. This is probably stretching it though, because I can see both products doing fine in both categories. It just shows the differences in how the products are actively being sold by the companies at hand.

Enough about marketing
OK. So far, I’ve spent too much time talking about marketing. What really matters is what it’s like to use one of these devices. I’ll save this until Part 2 where I compare several of the key features found in the iPhone and UMPC.

[You can leave a comment on my other blog, here.]