They can send a man to the moon (or at least they could 40 years ago). Why can't they make a tiny computer people want to buy?

Mobile phone, laptop and desktop PC markets are all well established, with dominant players in each category raking in billions in sales. But in the world of mobile computers, the field for laptops that are bigger than phones but smaller than regular laptops is still wide open. A shockingly large number of companies have invested millions of dollars developing products in this category. They've shipped dozens of gadgets hyped as the Next Big Thing. But the buying public has responded with indifference.

Many observers blame this indifference on problems with the categoryitself. What's the appeal of a mobile computer too big for your pocket and too small for a full screen and keyboard?

But I disagree. There are many scenarios - airplanes, restaurants, meetings, around the house - where tiny mobile computers are ideal. The problem is price, performance and user experience. To date, products have been way too expensive, slow, clunky and awkward to use.

Eventually, somebody is going to get it right. And when they do, the tiny computer market will get huge.

Since Microsoft announced the "Origami" project way back in March of last year, the category has been going nowhere. But, suddenly, everything has changed.

Events in the past 30 days lead me to conclude something unthinkable just one month ago: Apple - yeah, I said it - Apple! will ship the first ever successful small computer. Call it the Newton on Crack (or, more accurately, on Mac).

Here's what happened in September.

Palm Foleo

Everyone seems to think that Palm's Foleo project has been canceled. But this isn't true.

The original Foleo concept was a Linux-based, low-power clamshell device that worked exclusively with Palm's Treo line of smart phones.

What is true is that Palm CEO Ed Colligan announced earlier this month that the company plans to discontinue the use of Linux as an operating system. This companywide strategic change will delay the Foleo, which will come out eventually on a new OS platform the company is now working on. The new operating system will be finished next year.

So just to be clear: The Palm Foleo project has not been canceled. It has been given a new operating system and delayed.

The Foleo is still a dark horse candidate. If the company's new platform is great, if the company can survive long enough without real innovation on the phone side, if they can get the price down far enough - a lot of "ifs" here - then Palm has a shot at selling a few of these to existing Treo owners.

The Foleo has zero chance of dominating the coming boom in tiny mobile computers.

Nokia

The Federal Communications Commission recently approved a new minitablet, nonphone device from Nokia that supports Bluetooth, WLAN and GPS. The approval was branded as "confidential," so only the sketchiest of details are available on the product, which will almost certainly ship this year.

I'm not sure Nokia has the "right stuff" to compete in the nonphone market. For starters, the company has trouble focusing on individual products and tends to scatter its energy and resources across its massive line of devices. The future king of tiny mobile computers is going to need vision and focus.

Go ahead and take Nokia off the list of contenders.

The UMPCs

The ultramobile PC (or UMPC) platform, originally developed by Microsoft, Intel and Samsung, is designed for small, low-voltage computers with pen-based touch screens and, optionally, QWERTY keyboards. UMPCs can run Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, Windows Vista Home Premium Edition or Linux.

Intel announced last week that it would slash the power on its UMPC chip sets in an upcoming chip set code-named Moorestown and add hot features like WiMax, 3G and others.

The Intel announcement is the best news to ever hit the UMPC space. The future of UMPCs has potential, but so far nobody in the space has achieved the right combination of price, performance and overall user experience. The manufacturers are trying, however, and just this month have announced wide-ranging updates.

- Asus announced Thursday major updates to its R2E UMPC. The new version uses Intel's 800-MHz A110 processor instead of a Celeron, which should improve battery life. The device sports a few impressive specs, including 1GB of RAM, 802.11g wireless and integrated GPS and a webcam. The R2E, however, is simply too expensive to succeed at over $1,500, and it doesn't have a keyboard.

- Fujitsu recently announced its appealing LifeBook U1010 in Asia, which is sold as the U810 in the US. The device is for business professionals who also want to watch movies and play games. It even has a fingerprint scanner for security. Of all the UMPCs that are shipping, the Fujitsu has the most promise. It's both a tablet and a clamshell. It has a nice big keyboard. And it has a relatively low price: $1,000. Unfortunately, the UMPC runs Windows Vista, and some users report serious performance issues. If Fujitsu could make the U810 a lot faster and a little cheaper (say, under $700), they'd have a category buster. But they can't, so they don't.

- Sony recently updated the hardware on its VAIO UX-Series UMPC. The computer has a screen that slides up to uncover an unusable keyboard. The company will need to completely overhaul the design for better usability if it wants leadership in the coming minicomputer space. I would think Sony could do better than this.

- OQO's recently updated 02 UMPC is optimized for media, and has a small, awkward keyboard. The device is both too small - very close in size to a large smart phone - and too expensive, it costs as much as a laptop.

- HTC recently announced that it plans to jump on the Vista bandwagon with the company's Shift UMPC - and also use Windows Mobile. The device uses Microsoft's cell phone operating system to collect email while the computer is in sleep mode. The Shift has a nice, big keyboard and screen, but it's too expensive ($1,500), suffers from poor battery life (three hours!) and is a little on the fat side.

These are just the UMPCs updated during September. There are more than a dozen other devices out there on the Origami platform. Every single UMPC device that has been shipped or announced suffers from lousy usability, high prices, poor performance, ill-conceived user interfaces, or any combination of the above. And far too many of these companies are jumping on the Vista bandwagon. If Vista can't deliver good performance on a brand-new desktop PC, how can it function well enough on a low-powered handheld device with a touch screen?

Can anyone create the right combination of usability, performance and price? Yes: Someone can.

Apple

Two things happened in the Applesphere in September that changed everything. First, of course, is that Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced 5 September the iPod Touch.

The second is that AppleInsider said this week that Apple is working on an updated Newton MessagePad - basically a big iPod Touch with additional PDA functionality. The Mac OS X Leopard-based mobile minitablet PC will be 1.5 times the size of an iPhone, but with an approximate 720 by 480 high-resolution display. The site estimates that the new device will ship in the first half of 2008.

If true (and some believe it isn't), this rumour is very good news. If Apple ships an iPod Touch, but with good PIM (personal information manager) functionality, an optional wireless keyboard and good battery life for under $1,000, they win.

But even if this particular rumour is false, I still believe Apple will dominate this category with another project. As I've said before, Apple's iPhone user interface is a glimpse of the future, not only of future Apple mobile computers, but desktops and the future of all PCs as well. It's inevitable that Apple will ship a tablet Mac that works like the iPhone. And, just as in the iPod space, the company will likely round out the category with a "mini" version.

Of course, everything could change again in October. But right now, the only company with a prayer of succeeding in the small computer space is also the only company that hasn't even shown a prototype - Apple.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at [email protected] or his blog, The Raw Feed.