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Mon 13 Mar 2006 04:00 AM

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Origami’s appeal could be paper-thin

Is it a laptop replacement? A PDA? A competitor to Sony’s ever so svelte PSP? Nope, it’s the long awaited ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) – code-named Origami by Microsoft - and it’s about as sexy as a house brick.

|~||~||~|Each year at the ginormous CeBit IT trade show in Germany, all kinds of dazzling new gadgetry is premiered and released, and this year’s show has been no exception, thanks to Microsoft and co. (the co. part being Asus and Samsung) showing off the long awaited UMPC.

The first generation of UMPCs comprises what are effectively handheld computer devices, sized slightly larger than PSPs (roughly the same size as 'closed' ultra-portable notebooks), on which run Microsoft’s Windows XP Tablet Edition operating system (that’s XP with touch-screen functionality to you and me).

Whilst Asian powerhouses Samsung and Asus have produced the initial hardware, complete with touch-screens and battery lives of roughly two and a half hours, Microsoft’s contribution has been to add an extra layer of software to XP, called ‘Touch Pack’. This suite is designed to help users immediately launch the app they want – by clicking Play or Communicate for instance – rather than fingering their way through program menus. Fine and dandy.

As you might expect, hacks like yours truly are still a little while away from receiving sample products to play with, though Microsoft’s spokesperson has assured me that there’s no real reason why UMPCs won’t be rolled out in this region when they hit other markets. However, that’s not the issue that’s perplexing the Windows team; the real head-scratcher is trying to work out who UMPCs are aimed at, and why.

I for one have scoured the web, and the articles and blogs written by press attendees of Microsoft’s CeBit event, and of course Mr. Gates’s own company site, and the water on this one isn’t any less murky.

What might the UMPC compete with? Or, more accurately, which product gap does Microsoft think it could fill? Let's do a 'Conklin from Bourne Identity' then and "go deep"...

An ultra-portable notebook offers great functionality, all the features and performance you might reasonably need, and has a keyboard for easy input. The ‘Origami’ – or UMPC – has a touch screen, plus its quoted battery life hardly compares.

Maybe then, the Origami is more for fun stuff than an ultra-portable laptop? Well to this end, the PSP currently does this very well (and then some), whereas first-gen UMPCs pack in all those amazing games that XP has to offer (Solitaire anyone?) and, wait for it, Microsoft’s new essential funster, Sudoku. Trail-blazing enjoyment it ain’t.

PDAs and smartphones meanwhile are svelte, a doddle to use and - in most cases - double as perfectly useable mobile phones (even now adding push e-mail functionality in some cases). UMPCs, erm, don’t.

Still, it looks the business right? This Origami is a fashionista’s digital dream yeah?

Check out the pictures
here and decide for yourself (then forward your no-doubt lengthy list of superlatives to windows@itp.com).

Oh I know I’m a cynic, and I didn’t set out to bash Microsoft for two fortnights running, but the firm’s teams in the US have been hinting about such dazzling devices for so long that their first unveiling demands comment.

Here at ITP towers, we shall - in true Windows fashion - approach our review of the UMPC in objective, ‘benefit of the doubt’ fashion as and when when it occurs. And hopefully by then we’ll also be in tune with Microsoft’s thinking on where in the product landscape UMPCs actually ‘fit’. But until then, it’s all a bit of a mystery…

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