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The first group of UMPCs shipped with a plain Windows Tablet PC operating system. But at the Consumer Electronics Show, the company introduced the Origami Experience, a new user interface for Vista-based UMPCs that does away with the traditional desktop environment in favor of a single menu that scrolls both horizontally and vertically, letting users navigate quickly to their media files without a stylus or keyboard. Reviewers are calling the Origami Experience “speedy,” “intuitive,” “helpful,” and “sexy”–terms not often associated with Windows devices. This suggests that the UMPC may have a shot at attracting the same kinds of consumers who shell out for the indisputably sexy Apple iPod.

At OQO, Rosin and Whang say they’re not worried about going up against the UMPCs. “We see the OQO 02 as a productivity tool,” says Rosin. “The businessperson may want to have some personal stuff on their mobile PC, but our focus is really on the professional user, not on the teenager on the couch wanting to browse the Web with a tablet-type device.”

Nor is OQO concerned about Apple’s forthcoming iPhone, which is descended from the video iPod but will mimic many of the functions of a full PC, via an advanced touch-screen interface that early reviewers have greeted as potentially revolutionary. “The iPhone is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to us,” says Rosin. “Everyone is now thinking, ‘We need more than just voice on a cell phone,’ and ‘We need more than just audio on small devices.’ So there’s a lot of interest in this category, and we think that’s a good thing for OQO.”

The OQO 02 and the other small PCs hitting the market this year do have a few common weaknesses. One is battery life. It’s getting longer–four hours in the case of the OQO 02 and three hours for the Samsung Q1–but it’s still not long enough to keep a businessperson busy for the duration of a transcontinental flight. OQO’s devices and the UMPCs “need a minimum of 8 hours of battery life to succeed,” writes Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a technology consulting firm based in Campbell, CA.

And the screens and keyboards on the new devices, while improving, are still impractically small for some users, especially older users with less-than-perfect vision or dexterity. “My 28-year-old son can use the OQO 02 just fine,” Bajarin says. “But for old guys like me with bad eyes and fat thumbs, it’s really tough.”

But Bajarin’s biggest concern relates to manufacturers’ marketing strategy rather than to mechanics. He believes consumers will start buying ultraportable PCs only when they’re shown to have a compelling application–say, browsing the Web and controlling the TV, set-top box, DVR, and stereo system from the sofa. But as long as ultraportable PCs are marketed as general-purpose devices, software writers won’t be inspired to write the killer app that makes the devices take off, he argues.

“With a device of this size, if you take the PC mentality and say, ‘Let it be all things to all people,’ it will fail,” Bajarin says. “But if you say, ‘It’s a platform for application-specific solutions,’ then you’re more likely to get it right.”

Enderle, however, believes PCs could find a market even without further tweaking or new software. With its faster processor and full Windows capability, OQO’s device, in particular, could appeal to “folks for whom a smart phone isn’t really enough and a laptop is too much,” he says. “That’s still a niche group–but it could be a pretty good-sized niche.”

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Credit: OQO

Tagged: Computing, Microsoft, wireless, electronic gadgets, laptops, Vista, ultraportable

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