One of the most intriguing new phones being unveiled at this week’s big wireless show in Barcelona, Spain, may be a sleek new Windows model developed in Redmond.
It’s not coming from Microsoft, which will have a relatively low profile at this year’s Mobile World Congress.
The phone I’m most curious about is being made by a little company in the warren of offices west of Highway 520 between Microsoft and Nintendo. That’s where a few dozen employees of i-mate have built a striking new handset with a 4.7-inch touch-screen display.
It looks similar to the latest jumbo, slab phones, but it’s a more potent machine inside. The phone runs on Intel’s “Clover Trail” hardware and Windows 8 Pro, so it’s a full-blown PC capable of running most desktop software.
Called the Intelegent, the device could go on sale this summer for $750, which is less than the price of an unlocked iPhone 5 with the same amount of storage capacity.
The phone is more powerful than most tablets. It has an Atom processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM and 64 gigabytes of storage. It’s designed to work with HSPA+ and LTE 4G wireless networks and have up to 10 hours of talk time.
I-mate will sell the phone alone or as part of a $1,600 desktop hardware suite including a docking station, called the “hub.”
Docked in the hub, the phone can be used with a traditional, wired phone handset or make video calls. It also functions as a desktop PC — powering a 23-inch touch-screen display, keyboard and mouse — and drives an auxiliary wireless tablet with a 10.1-inch, 1080p display.
This isn’t i-mate’s first trip to the rodeo. The company was founded in 2001 by Jim Morrison, a British Telecom veteran who worked with Microsoft and HTC to launch early smartphones based on Windows CE.
The company grew into a major phone producer in the United Kingdom and Dubai before its business tumbled in 2007 and 2008.
A line of advanced, business-oriented smartphones with Windows inside was floated in 2007 but sales didn’t pan out.
Production problems, limited demand and other challenges led the company, based in Dubai at the time, to lay off most of its employees and delist its stock.
HTC moved on. It transformed from a relatively obscure manufacturer to a prominent consumer brand, in part by taking an early lead with Android phones.
Two years ago, i-mate’s reinvention began in earnest. The company quietly started developing a new phone based on the Intel silicon.
The company isn’t setting out to topple the iPhone or Android models that dominate the smartphone business. Instead it’s positioning itself as a challenger to the BlackBerry, which is also re-emerging with new models aimed largely at business users.
With tablet sales starting to outpace those of smartphones, and the rise of big phone-tablet “phablets” like Samsung’s Galaxy Note, perhaps it’s time for a 4.7-inch PC phone.
Morrison also sees an opportunity to sell corporate users a reasonably priced desktop suite — including a PC, tablet and phone — all powered by the phone.
He believes corporate buyers will also be interested in a modern phone that can be managed like a PC and run their own PC applications, regaining control they’ve ceded to the closed gardens of Apple’s iOS, Android and even Windows Phone.
I can’t wait to try the system.
Maybe I’m just sentimental about the crazy handheld PCs that Paul Allen and others tried to develop a decade ago, before smartphones took off and PCs were still the gadget tinkerers’ platform of choice.
Wallet-sized micro PCs like the OQO and the FlipStart that Allen unveiled in 2003 never caught on, in part because they were too expensive and impractical.
They arrived long before the hardware, software and wireless infrastructure were ready. Morrison said key advances enabling i-mate to produce the Intelegent are Windows 8 and Intel’s Atom hardware, which has just started being used in mobile phones.
Windows finally starts up fast enough to answer a phone call and its new tiled interface works on the small screen as is, Morrison said.
“We’ve made it more portable, we’ve combined it with a phone and overall costs have been reduced,” he said. “You’ve got a lot in your package.”
Morrison said i-mate will manufacture the phones in the U.S., using screens from South Korea, touch panels from Miami and hardware boards made in Japan.
A facility in California is ready to assemble 10,000 units a week, he said.
The company also is benefiting from Intel’s big push to become a player in mobile devices, beyond the laptop. After years of trying, it gained a legitimate toehold in phones last year.
Atom-based Android phones went on sale in India, Europe and other overseas markets, with producers such as Motorola, Lenovo and Acer on board.
Intel is hoping to pick up the pace with several new hardware systems that it’s announcing Monday in Barcelona.
They include a new Atom processor dubbed Clover Trail Plus, with double the computing power and three times the graphics capabilities as the Clover Trail model that launched in September.
The new Intel processors are designed for phones and tablets, including a wave of new Android tablets coming out in the next few months and some lower-cost Windows devices.
So far, i-mate appears to be the first to use Intel hardware to build a phone running Windows 8. Intel has been helping out by providing engineering support, spokeswoman Kathy Gill confirmed.
“It’s an exciting time for mobile technology in general as you see these smartphones becoming more powerful and people wanting to do more and more with their mobile devices,” she said.
Whether this leads to a single device powering all the gadgets in the office remains to be seen.
Intel and Microsoft would probably prefer that people continue buying a phone, a PC and a tablet rather than an all-in-one like i-mate’s Intelegent.
Even so, i-mate is likely the first of multiple companies that will try again to help people converge or consolidate their devices, taking advantage of PC hardware that finally has the right combination of small size, battery efficiency and wireless capabilities.
Meanwhile i-mate is off to Barcelona to find partners such as wireless carriers to help launch its device this summer.
No doubt, it’s a longshot. We’ll also have to see if the system works as well as it looks.
But it’s hard not to get excited about the company’s concept and verve.