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Just a Thought - Been There, Done That, Time to do it Again

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- March 20th, 2006

Earlier this month Microsoft took the wraps off of its supposedly secret hotsey-totsey project known as Origami. What was revealed overwhelmed and underwhelmed the public and media alike; a small tablet PC capable of running a full version of Windows XP.

While that description would likely put most folks in the 'underwhelmed' bucket, a closer look at Origami might sway more than a few folk to jump-bucket and at least pile into the 'interested' pail.

For those of you who've just come out of hibernation; After months of near-Apple-like secrecy and boat loads of media speculation, Microsoft and the gadget trade show, CeBIT, and Intel at the Intel Developer Forum, showed off an interesting device about the size of a large paperback (or closer in size and shape to the venerable Newton 2100) that could run the full version of Windows XP, came with no keyboard or mouse, was crammed full of wireless connectivity, and actually looked kinda cool. Both companies gave this device the unfortunate name; the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC).

The underwhelmed folks saw the UMPC as a Johnny-come-lately knock-off of the Newton, albeit an updated knock-off. I originally counted myself a member of the underwhelmed crowd until I saw a video highlighting the user interface of the UMPC; now I'm sitting quite comfy in the 'interested' bucket, but I'm not ready to eyeball the overwhelmed pail just yet.

Take a look at a video where Justin Jaffe of CNet News gives Intel's version of  the UMPC a once over. Pay particular attention to the demo of the user interface. What you'll see is an integrated gesture recognition system from Microsoft, called Touch Pack, that is used to navigate through the many functions and applications available on the UMPC.

Want to watch a movie? Use your finger to gesture the letter 'm' on the UMPC screen and it brings up a list of available videos. Tap one and the movie starts. Need to find another app? Gesture an 'h' on the screen and it takes you to the home page, where you can tap another application for use. Very cool.

Not as cool as Apple's patent-pending gesturing UI, but not too shabby either.

Still, even with a nice interface, the UMPC is a tablet, a brick with a pretty screen, and while tablet PCs have their place, they are not "the next big thing." I am holding a Newton 2100 in my hands right now, technology that was developed some 10 years (and more) ago, and this thing is still one cool piece of gee-whizardry. It can't compete with the UMPC that Justin was handling, but it can still do some thing the UMPC can't (I speak of handwriting recognition (which became Inkwell) that is matchless even today). I can only imagine what the Newton might be like today if Jobs hadn't killed it, but I know it would not be the UMPC shown above.

Hey! Wait a minute...

Go out to the Intel Web site and check out the UMPC concept vids (click on one of the links under the Intel logo). Now THAT'S more like it. Put a version of OS X on those puppies and offer it at a reasonable price and you've got a sweet little device that people might sell a kidney to buy.


One of Intel's UMPC concepts

The thing is this: Till now, Jobs has pooh-poohed the tablet PC, and with good reason; the size, GUI, and underlying technology was only enough to address niche markets. It was a technical solution looking for a problem.

But as technological advances are developed and come within reach of the average Joe and Jill, companies like Apple need to take another look at what is possible, what is reasonable, what is cool, and what will sell.

WiFi and (finally) Bluetooth technologies are maturing nicely, cheap Flash RAM and dinky high capacity hard drives are abundant, and you can't spit without hitting a high resolution, ultra-bright LCD display nowadays. Also, Apple has the OS and the GUI. All that's needed is some Apple design magic and Apple will have another 'iPod' on its hands.

After the glow of using a Newton wore off I found that I agreed with Jobs about not producing Apple branded PDAs and tablets; with technology at the time, there was no real reason to bother. It's been nearly 10 years and all of that has changed. Maybe it is time for Apple to take another long hard look at producing a tablet device. I think that if they did, the devices that Intel showed would be an appetizer, preparing us for a technological feast. I can't wait to belly up to the that table.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

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