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Working with Ultra-Mobile PCs : A Tour of the UMPC Software

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In late 2005, Microsoft launched an online viral marketing campaign for something called Origami, which was later revealed to be part of its Ultra-Mobile PC, or UMPC, initiative. UMPCs are basically touch-screen-capable ultra-small form factor mobile computers, sort of sub-sub-notebooks that eschew traditional keyboards and pointing devices in favor of a smaller, highly portable form factor. They're larger than a PDA but smaller than the smallest slate Tablet PC, though they typically incorporate the full feature set of true Tablet PCs as well.

Don't confuse Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs) with netbooks, a new generation of sub$500 computers. Netbooks like the Asus EeePC or Lenovo IdeaPad are notebook computers, but they are not UMPCs because they lack touch-screen capabilities.

1. Origami 1.0

The first generation of UMPC devices ran Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and was criticized for being somewhat pointless, a solution to a problem no one had; but Microsoft had a vision of a very specific portable computing experience that would utilize a seven-inch screen and weigh less than three pounds. With the first-generation UMPC, the company targeted tech enthusiasts—which helps explain the viral marketing campaign—but that proved to be a mistake. The devices sold poorly when they hit the market in early 2006.

The UMPC form factor, not surprisingly, has been at the center of some heated debates. It is too large to place in a typical pocket (like a smartphone or PDA), but too small to contain a usable keyboard (at least by traditional mobile PC standards). And UMPCs cost more than netbooks, which look and behave like regular notebook computers. For these reasons, the UMPC occupies an interesting but perhaps dubious segment of the market. It's just unclear whether customers are really looking for a device that's larger than a cell phone but smaller than a subnotebook.

What Microsoft was doing with the UMPC at a software level, however, was interesting. The company had created a touch-enabled software front end to Windows XP called the Origami Experience, and configured Windows to be optimized for both the capabilities and limitations of the devices at the time. This provided customers with not only the familiar Windows user experience, but also some unique capabilities that were specific to the UMPC platform. Think of it this way: Microsoft was pushing an ultra-mobile touch user interface years before Apple entered the market with the iPhone, and they'll never get any credit for it at all.

2. A New Origami

For the second go-round, Microsoft fine-tuned the software, based it on Windows Vista, and worked with a new generation of more efficient hardware. It can still be performance-challenged, thanks to the limitations of the ultra-low-voltage (ULV) processors that are typically used to power such devices, but various hardware makers and Microsoft have worked in concert to create more interesting solutions that will appeal to a wider audience. And somewhat surprisingly, UMPCs are heading to the enterprise now as well. It's a potentially compelling solution for those who need to work and connect on the go.

The primary advantage of a UMPC compared to a smartphone or PDA, of course, is that it's a real PC. It runs real Windows software, albeit somewhat slowly, and it can do so in even the most cramped situations, such as a typical aircraft's coach seat. The battery life is fantastic, and much better than anything seen in traditional business notebooks, especially if you're running typical application software. (Battery life during media playback is mediocre, from what we've seen.)

Compared to a Tablet PC, of course, a UMPC is much more compact and portable, which should appeal to a number of user types, including students, soccer moms, and traveling salespeople.

Compared to a netbook, a UMPC is more expensive, but it doesn't need to be opened up for use. And its touch screen makes such devices more natural to use than netbooks, which are often cramped. Because most UMPCs don't look like normal PCs, you don't expect them to act or perform like their bigger siblings.

Thanks to a variety of innovative hardware designs, you'll see interesting keyboard and pointing device solutions. For example, the Samsung Q-Series UMPCs, shown in Figure 1, feature an impressive and tiny smartphone-like thumb keyboard, split in half such that there are keys on each side of the screen. Holding the device with two hands, as you would naturally, the keys are right where your thumbs are, and work just like the keyboard on the smartphone you're probably already using. You wouldn't want to type a dissertation on that keyboard, but it's great for e-mail, Web browsing, document editing, and other light editing tasks, and is certainly much better than an onscreen virtual keyboard (which is also available courtesy of the Tablet PC functionality in Windows, of course). When you're back at the office, you can plug into USB keyboards and mice, and even an external screen, and have a desktop-like experience, albeit a fairly slow one.

Figure 1. Some UMPCs feature innovative built-in keyboards for typing on the go.

Moving forward to Windows 7, Microsoft hasn't yet updated Origami for its latest operating system, and it's unclear if it ever will. But the existing Origami 2.0 software, originally designed for Windows Vista, works just fine in Windows 7, too. The next section takes a look.

3. A Tour of the UMPC Software

While the underlying operating system on a UMPC is a stock version of Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate with full Tablet PC capabilities enabled, Microsoft has added a number of UMPC-specific software solutions to the mix as well, and of course various PC makers also supply their own device-specific utilities. Before we get to that, however, you're probably curious what the UMPC interface looks like. Shown in Figure 2, it's basically Windows 7 ... but on a low-resolution screen, typically 1,024 × 600 or lower.

Figure 2. UMPCs are immediately familiar, but they generally offer lower-resolution screens than a typical portable computer.

3.1. The Origami Experience

The Origami Experience is the poster child of the UMPC world, a unique Microsoft application that combines the simplicity and basic look and feel of Media Center with a touch-enabled interaction scheme. While it's geared primarily toward entertainment—three of the four most prominent options in the initial UI are related to music, video, and pictures—it can also be used as a straightforward program launcher. The Origami Experience is shown in Figure 3.

The Origami Experience interface is colorful, obvious, and easy to use. There are quick link buttons on the top for task switching (that is, Windows Flip), battery life, and wireless signal, but most of the screen is occupied by large, colorful icons that are easy to look at and, more important, easy to tap with your finger. Yes, the Origami Experience can be used with a mouse and keyboard, of course, but it's really geared for touch screens.

The Music view offers nice views that include Now Playing (see Figure 4) and Library (see Figure 5), both of which sport large, finger-friendly icons and controls.

Figure 3. It's like Media Center Lite, perfect for small form factor PCs.

Figure 4. Similar to Windows Media Player, the Now Playing view offers a look at the current song.

Figure 5. In Library, you can easily access all of the music content stored on the device.

As you might expect, Videos and Pictures offer similar experiences, with both Now Playing and Library views in both.

Aside from Internet, music, video, and pictures, Origami provides another option, Programs, which opens to reveal access to productivity applications on your PC (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. The Origami Experience offers finger-based access to non-entertainment applications too.

Of course, once you launch any of the applications displayed within these groups, you're popped out of the Origami Experience. This is somewhat jarring but understandable, as Microsoft couldn't replace the entire Windows UI.

Microsoft says that the Origami Experience isn't just about a new user interface or enabling touch access to most operating system functions. Instead, this environment is optimized for what the company calls quick interactions. This is different from the typical Windows user interface paradigm, where you're typically multi-tasking and getting a number of things done in tandem. In the Origami Experience, the expectation is that you're typically doing just one thing, or performing a single task while also playing music. It's a new interaction method that's essentially single-task by design. This makes sense both for the devices that will typically run this system and for the limitations of the underlying hardware.

Another way to view the Origami Experience is via a consumption/management perspective. For example, you won't manage your music collection or import CDs to the hard drive from within the Origami Experience. Instead, you continue using Windows Media Player (or Windows Media Center) for those tasks; but the Origami Experience is a very simple UI for consuming content, such as music. 

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