Almost two years ago, Microsoft launched a bizarre viral marketing campaign for something called Origami, which was later revealed to be part of the 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. If you've ever seen the original OQO device, which was sort of a proto-UMPC, you get the idea: It's larger than a PDA but smaller than the smallest slate Tablet PC.
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. Part of the problem, of course, was finding the right fit with users: Microsoft had this notion about a portable computing experience that would utilize a 7-inch screen and weigh less than 3 pounds, but it wasn't clear what the audience was. So with the first generation UMPC, the company targeted consumer enthusiasts--thus 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. Because it is too large to place in a typical pocket, but too small to contain a useable keyboard (at least by traditional mobile PC standards), the UMPC occupies an interesting but perhaps unnecessary segment of the market. I suspect that Palm faced a similar decision when it opted to cancel its Folio project this year: It's unclear that customers are really looking for a device that's larger than a cell phone but smaller than a sub-notebook.
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 XP called the Origami Experience and had configured XP to be optimized for both the capabilities and limitations of the devices at the time. This provided customers with 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.
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