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Ultra-Mobile PC (aka Origami) now official

Microsoft and its partners Samsung, Asus, and Leader revealed what has become the worst-kept secret in movile tech earlier today at CeBIT. The Ultra-Mobile PC is a new handheld form factor for mobile computing that runs Windows XP Tablet PC Edition with an enhanced layer called Touch Pack.
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Written by Marc Orchant on

So much has been written about these devices already that I thought it might be interesting to take a different tangent on discussing the announcement. You can learn more about the devices themselves from Microsoft's official announcement, the Origami Project website, and ongoing coverage at GottaBeMobile. Channel 9's Robert Scoble posted a 37-minute video interview with Otto Berkes if you really want to dive deeply into the thinking behind the new platform. [Editor's note: ZDNet has a photo gallery of the Origami devices.]

My interest, frankly, is less about the first generation devices announced this week and more about the implications this in-between form factor represents for anytime, anywhere computing. There have been plenty of conversations, a lot of opinions, and the requisite, snarky sound bites from the get-it-first-not-necessarily-right gadget sites which continue to place a premium on attitude over information.

Consider as a case in point the meager attention paid by Engadget to actually providing any information of value about the UMPC despite the fact that they are among the few who have actually had a chance to see one in the... er plastic. UPDATE: Never mind - they have redeemed themselves with a much more extensive post that provides the best look yet at the first-gen units from Asus and Leader. My apologies for jumping the gun and tossing way too much attitude in Engadget's direction. Compare that to the lavish coverage they gave to... wait for it... a cell phone with breathy text and seven photos. It's a phone! Not to mention the orgiastic Jobs-fest they held during The Steve's recent non-announcement of a more expensive Mini based on a processor with virtually no third-party software support yet and a powered speaker for the iPod - truly groundbreaking, world changing stuff. And Gizmodo? Forget it - not even worth commenting on.

From the analyst world, where expectations for actual reporting of facts is considerably higher, Jupiter Research's Michael Gartenberg gets it right. He sees Origami/UMPC as a new product category that will take time to evolve, both from a technology and an adoption perspective.

Origami is going to appeal mostly to the enthusiasts who can use this as not a second, but likely a third PC and students who can get access to cheap Tablet PC technology. That's not a bad market for a v1 device. After all, the first iPods went only to Mac users (who had 1394 on their machines) and early Windows enthusiasts. That changed over time. Expect the Origami story to evolve and remember, we haven't seen the Origami story in the Vista timeframe. Look at Origami the way you might look at a new platform, not the value of a particular machine today.

Taking that one step further, I would argue that enthusiast adoption is actually pretty irrelevant to the platform's utlimate success based on raw numbers. What matters more is that the outspoken enthusiasts who blog, participate in conversations in forums and newsgroups, and who influence others because they are the go-to reference point for the early majority of adopters not get blindsided into trying to force UMPC into an existing niche. Where UMPC will ultimately succeed, I think, is in the consumer (prosumer) and student markets. Based on my completely unscientific polling of people in both of these markets, the adoption curve should be very healthy.

I have a friend who just dropped $600 on a hard drive-based photo and media album from Epson. Like the UMPC, it has a decent capacity (his is 60 GB which is the top end for the first UMPC spec), a 7" screen (his is not a touch screen though) and gets about 3 hours of battery life. It's a very cool device although the software user interface is charitably described as clumsy.

Compare that investment to a UMPC which would not only do all of the things his shiny new bauble does - view images, watch video, listen to music and podcasts - but also connects to the Net, runs a full-blown OS, provides the ability play games, watch TV, read ebooks, use VoIP telephony, blog, etc., etc., etc. Oh... and costs about the same (OK, maybe a little bit more).

This, by the way, is a guy who already uses a Tablet PC and carries a Blackberry. So go back and reread Gartenberg's prediction about the UMPC being a third device and see if that doesn't align with this friend of mine. He's not a techie. He does like gadgets. And he is the poster child for the prosumer customer I think will make UMPC a success.

You can only guess what my two students think about a PC they can carry with them everywhere. My son's biggest disappointment? It probably won't be very good for playing Halo. His biggest point of excitement? I quote:

This is like the DS or PSP only worth buying Dad! Yeah, it's more expensive but I already have a ton of games and software I can use on it. When can I get one?

UPDATE 2: Ken "Caesar" Fisher at Ars Technica does a righteous review on the announcements coming out of CeBIT and suggest that Microsoft is attempting nothing less than the "redefinition of the PDA". Here's the money quote from Ken's analysis:

Where does Origami improve on previous attempts? The interesting thing about Origami is how similar it is to Media Center Edition. While the two serve entirely different purposes, both are essentially built on top of Windows XP. Not only that, but they both attempt to address user interface limitations in Windows XP the same way: with an application that sits on top of the standard Windows desktop. For Media Center, that meant a UI add-on designed to look good from your couch. For Origami, this means a UI design meant to overcome the problems that the XP UI experiences when it's crammed in a small space.

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