OQO looks like a pocket PDA; but it's a real wireless Windows PC

by Guy Kewney | posted on 05 May 2002

If you really want to see why we're so excited about the Picsel e-Page user interface for portables, have a look at the Oqo - a fully-fledged PC in a four-inch box.

Guy Kewney

The Oqo is the size - and shape - of a PocketPC. But it's actually a full-scale Windows box. It doesn't just have a small display; it also has built-in WiFi wireless, Firewire high-speed serial socket, and a ten gig hard disk and 256 meg of RAM. And Bluetooth!

It was the star of Microsoft's recent WinHEC conference in Seattle, where it was displayed by startup company Oqo The machine won't be built by Oqo (which is going to become famous for having the most irritating Web site in the world, if it doesn't become famous for anything else) - it's just a PC, but so small, it fits in any pocket. And because it has a Crusoe 1,000 MHz chip in it, it is pretty mean about how it uses power, compared with an Intel PIII chip. And because the display is pretty small, that doesn't use so much power either. So you'd think it was just about ideal; and a lot of people have thought so.

<1/> Oqo looks like a palm-top; but isn't

"What makes the concept so useful is that there no longer needs to be a separation between the PC you use at the office and the one you use at home. They can be one in the same. Need to take work home? Slip the PC into a shirt pocket or briefcase. Plug it into a cradle at home, and all the data you need are there waiting. No need to e-mail everything home first. No further need to transfer schedules or other files to a PDA, either. No need for a PDA at all, for that matter."

That was the comment from Forbes writer Arik Hesseldahl.

The point Hesseldahl is focusing on is the fact that when you plug this little pocket device into its docking station, it becomes a full size PC; it will accept input from a real keyboard, it will display on a full CRT screen, it will drive standard peripherals.

Microsoft, of course, loves the idea. "We're impressed with the direction that OQO is showing in developing its ultra-mobile, ultra-connected Windows XP-based PC," said Jim Allchin, group vice president of the Platforms Group at Microsoft Corp. "These types of small-form-factor PCs, with their ability to deliver the power and richness of Windows any time and anywhere, will enable exciting new user experiences and opportunities."

Nobody seems to be willing to rain on this parade, so I guess it's my job. The point I'm more concerned about is the fact that when Oqo runs on its built-in screen, it is 640 by 480 pixels. The phrase "power and richness" takes on an ironic tinge in that context. And I'm also worried about what happens when I lose the thing, or drop it.

Now, I know that when the first Windows PCs arrived, 640x480 was all they had! I know that a GUI can work in a small number of pixels; and I don't doubt that there are distinct advantages to using a "proper" Windows interface, rather than the PocketPC version of Windows. For one thing, the software doesn't need to be "translated" before it works. But I don't really accept that it "works" at all, at 640x480. Realistically, Windows today needs a minimum of 800x600 pixels, and even then, you'll find a lot of software still doesn't fit.

"Crusoe is a catalyst for innovative, small, cool and quiet computing for emerging wireless platforms," said David Ditzel, vice-chairman and chief technology officer, Transmeta Corporation. "Until Crusoe, no one imagined that you could run Windows XP on a computer weighing less than nine ounces."

I still don't. At 640x480, you won't even see the full dialog box of some standard Windows screens; for example, the "OK" button will be hidden under your task bar, on the screen "settings" setup control.

And frankly, anybody who is over 35 years old, will need reading glasses to make out the text.

The concept of "one central data source, which you carry everywhere" has been tried very often. The first serious attempt was when Chuck Peddle, at Tandon, used the company's position as a leading hard disk maker to design a removeable hard disk. It provided a shock-proof five megabytes of storage which you could store everything you needed to run a DOS computer on. And it ejected, just like a VHS tape, when you left for the day.

The idea was that the disk contained the heart and soul of your computer. Plug it in, and the keyboard, display, and peripherals all came to life and -wherever you were - you had your normal working environment with you.

Since then, other people have refined the concept; Syquest produced a far bigger-capacity removeable hard drive in a far smaller box; Iomega produced removeable storage devices too. Most of these failed, because they only worked correctly if the machines you plugged it into were absolutely identical. That is, the same display, the same network connection, the same modem ... and if it wasn't that, then the package disk just became removeable storage.

The Oqo isn't just the heart of the machine; it is the machine. And modern versions of Windows do make it possible to have profiles set up, so that the machine recognises where it is, and adapts itself to the new configuration. Until we have a fully-built Oqo to test, we will just have to presume that they get this bit right; it's not guaranteed, by any means. As any notebook computer user will tell you, it's all too easy to have a PC which will "stand by" but won't wake up again in a new environment.

The publicity pix for Oqo make it look pretty tiny. Well, its display is! - but it still weighs about half a pound (more, actually) and it's not a thin, sleek beast like the mmo2 XDA or Toshiba's new Pocket PC. It is "less than an inch thick" - which is to say, damn nearly an inch thick; you won't fit this in a shirt pocket!

Finally, there's the question of data backup.

Now, it is (I'm assured) no longer the case that people simply don't back up their data, they way they simply didn't back it up two years ago. I spend time drinking with the sort of people who routinely maintain and help ordinary PC users in large corporations, and they have all taught their clients, or "lusers" as they call us, that data has to be backed up. And, they assure me, their clients have got the message.

Well, that's the theory. "Everybody knows someone who has had a massive data loss, and weren't backed up," my learned friends assure me. Well, yes; and everybody knows someone who has AIDS, probably, too. And the disease spreads, because despite that, people think "it will be OK, just this once."

I think that if people switched to the Oqo, they would tend to use it as if it were a pocket "personal data appliance" or "personal digital assistant" - or PDA. A Palm, or a PocketPC.

The normal pattern of use for a PDA, is that you plug it into your PC, and "synchronise" it with the data there. Of course, there are people who simply don't do this; they don't even have a PC, just the PDA. But most people will actually say that "the big advantage of the electronic diary is, if I lose it, it's not like a FiloFax or Daytimer, where everything is gone. I just get a new one, plug it into the PC, and bingo! - it's got everything on it again!"

Which is true; but it doesn't encourage the habit of backup every day on an Oqo, because the Oqo won't be plugged into a back up server unless someone specifically makes sure it is.

Typically, corporate backup happens at night, when everybody has gone home. Already, we're finding that people are complaining about the fact that their notebook PCs aren't getting backed up, because (naturally!) they take the things home with them. When they are at work, quite often, they're on a wireless LAN; and backup of more than one or two notebooks over a WLAN is not easy nor quick. It jams the WLAN itself, and it's prone to being interrupted.

There are good solutions to all these problems. You can backup from home over broadband through the virtual private network to the office. You can backup to your own CD rewriteable discs. You can store incremental changes on a remote Internet backup service - there are lots, and quite reasonably priced. And (heavens help us) you can even do it the traditional way and save new files onto floppy disk. Yes, I do know people who try this.

But all these solutions require diligence, understanding, and sadly, expertise. Even my technical-helpdesk friends admit; having set everything up, they still find that their users are doing the backup wrong; saving the wrong files, failing to keep the backups properly, and failing to verify that the backup was actually done.

So I think that if something like the Oqo did appear in the market, and did overcome other objections, it would have to lead to a serious change in user habits if people were not going to lose a lot of important data - and that's ignoring the likelihood of their simply losing the box.

What I think I'm arguing is that to succeed, Oqo has to be so much nicer to use than an ordinary PC, and so much more powerful than a PocketPC, that you simply don't consider either of the others.

For me, a 640x480 pixel display simply doesn't meet that measure. Nor does Windows on a four-inch screen cut it. And I don't expect, even with the Crusoe processor, that Oqo's battery life - driving a ten gig disk and 256 meg of RAM - is going to be an all-day workload - even if I'm prepared to put up with a half-pound weight in my pocket.

The thing that impresses me about the Picsel e-Page user interface is that it allows me to use a reasonably compact device, with a reasonable battery life, and yet allows me to read documents that come direct from my office PC without effort, without magnifying lenses, and without having to find my way around the screen furniture of Windows.

Frankly, I think that the Oqo concept is fine; but it's not modular enough.

“Modular computers have been identified as one of the most desirable form factors by Giga's IT audience every time we have surveyed for it,†said Rob Enderle, research fellow for Giga Information Group. “This is one concept that actually could transform the technology industry and ensure a more steady revenue stream preceded by unprecedented—and potentially incredible—growth.â€

I couldn't agree more; but I won't regard the Oqo has having succeeded in doing this until I see what its battery life is like, and find out how easy it is to carry around, and how simple its backup strategy is to implement. Backup that is reliable and safe but too complex for the typical user to invoke, is actually less useful in my eyes than something which has potential flaws, but is so straightforward to use that people just do it anyway.

If Gartner is correct in guessing a price of $1,000 retail for Oqo, then it will certainly sell in sufficient numbers to be judged a commercial success. You can get PDAs for just 300 less, and inevitably, some of those who buy them, will want the extra features, and the extra price isn't a killer. Gartner's report suggests: "OQO tries to marry the two different types of computing in one core device to eliminate the need to carry two devices. In the past, such devices have fallen between notebooks and PDAs, with enough compromises to make them unsuitable for users of either of the two platforms."

That is indeed the risk. Already, PDA form factors are being seen as "too big, too clumsy" for people to carry them everywhere. The absolute killer benchmark isn't "how fast does it run an Excel recalc?" or even "can you browse an ordinary Web page on it?" - but "Where is it?" If you haven't got it with you, then it will fail every other benchmark.

"OQO's plug-in approach is one being explored by several vendors although no other devices have yet come to market," remarks Gartner's analyst, Leslie Fiering.

My own dream machine would look more like the IXI Personal Mobile Gateway from IXI - with a UI on its screen based on Picsel's e-page, and wireless connecting the modules. And a key feature of the device would be a built-in, fundamental, bios-level function to make sure that new user-generated files are automatically send to an off-site backup service, whether the user intends to do so, or not.

At nearly nine pounds weight, I suspect the Oqo would fail my fundamental benchmark. I would leave it behind. I love the idea; I'm pleased to see it, and I think it's a genuine step in the direction I'd like things to go.

But we aren't there yet.