For all the fanfare surrounding the launch of Intel's Centrino Atom chip package at the Intel Developer Forum in Shanghai, there was a notable shortage of new products based on the chips, apart from a few concept designs rolled out for the occasion.
Centrino Atom, which includes an Atom processor and a chipset, was billed as the heart of a new class of computing devices, handheld computers that Intel calls Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs). These new devices, which promise mobile Internet access and the ability to communicate or play multimedia files, are scheduled to arrive during the second or third quarter, but that seems unlikely to happen, at least in any significant volumes.
"As with most Jetsons-like products, they tend to suffer from too much hype and overly high expectations," said Bryan Ma, director of personal systems research at IDC Asia-Pacific, referring to the 1960s television cartoon about life in the distant future replete with flying cars, robots, and other gadgets.
IDC hasn't issued a forecast for the number of MIDs that will be shipped this year. There are "a lot of hesitations and concerns" about this product segment, Ma said, adding he doesn't expect to see widespread demand for MIDs for several years, at least.
The biggest concern is the lack of awareness among users. Many consumers don't yet understand how MIDs can be useful to them in their daily lives, Ma said, adding that other concerns include product design, usability issues, and pricing.
For Intel's part, the company says a range of MIDs are in the works and insists the designs showcased at IDF are soon headed to users. "We've got over 20 [manufacturers] planning products," said Gary Willihnganz, director of marketing at Intel's Ultra Mobility Group, during a conference call with reporters.
Several of the concept MID designs shown at IDF had been exhibited before. Others, such as Panasonic's ToughBook, seemed to stretch the MID concept by adding features and capabilities beyond what was originally envisioned by Intel, blurring the distinctions between MIDs and other types of portable computers.
For example, MIDs were originally envisioned running customized versions of Linux, but Intel now says they will also ship with Windows XP and Windows Vista. These versions of Microsoft's operating system are generally more at home in a laptop or desktop instead of a handheld device that's designed to fit in a pocket.
Creating demand for a new category of computing device is not an easy task. Looking ahead, the key for Intel is to build awareness about MIDs with users and focus on early adopters, IDC's Ma said, adding that a catalyst product is needed to spur wider demand. And that product may already exist, he said.
Both Apple's iPod Touch and Nokia's N800 series of Internet tablets fit Intel's definition of a MID, although they are not based on processors from the chip maker. Both devices use processors based on a core developed by Arm, a U.K. company that has long specialized in the design of low-power processor cores used in mobile devices and cellular phones.
They are also significantly cheaper than the US$500 starting price Intel envisions for MIDs, with the iPod Touch priced from $299 and the N800 priced at $240.