Is that an Ultra-Mobile PC in your Pocket?

Almost two years ago, Microsoft started a bizarre viral marketing campaign for something called Origami, which was later revealed to be part of the Ultra-Mobile PC (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 directionless. Part of the problem, of course, was finding the right fit with users: Microsoft had this notion about a portable computing experience that would use 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.

What Microsoft was doing at a software level, however, was interesting. The company had created a finger-friendly software front-end to XP called the Origami Experience and had optimized XP for both the capabilities and limitations of the devices at the time.

For the second go-round, Microsoft fine-tuned the software, focused on Windows Vista, and worked with a new generation of hardware. It's still performance-challenged, thanks to the limitations of the ultra-low-voltage (ULV) processors that must be 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. More specifically, UMPCs are heading to the enterprise, and though you might want to hold off until yet another chipset generation appears in early 2008, these devices are an increasingly compelling solution for those on the go who need both portability and compatibility..

The primary advantage of an UMPC 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 of situations, like your typical airline coach seat. The battery life is fantastic, and much better than anything I've seen from traditional business notebooks.

And thanks to a variety of innovative hardware designs, you'll see interesting keyboard and pointing device solutions. For example, the Samsung Q1 Ultra that I've been testing for almost two months features an amazing and tiny smart phone-like thumb keyboard, split in half so that there are some 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 smart phone you're probably already using. I wouldn't want to type this article on that keyboard, but it's great for email, Web browsing, document editing, and other tasks, and is certainly much better than an on-screen virtual keyboard (which is also available, 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.

Although it would be nice to describe the UMPC as a best of both worlds experience, it's unlikely that even the least demanding mobile user would want to use one of these devices as their only PC because of the performance concerns. That said, I travel enough to understand how laborious it is to lug around even a mid-sized notebook, and traveling lighter is a goal I work on constantly. Given my heavy writing needs, a UMPC doesn't quite work, and at the very least I'd need to stick a USB keyboard and mouse in my checked luggage. I've brought the Samsung with me on the past few trips, and I'll do so again next week when I head to a Microsoft reviewer's workshop near Seattle. Can the UMPC function as my sole PC on such a trip? Stay tuned.

MinWin Follow-up

Microsoft technical fellow Mark Russinovich emailed me last week to let me know that the MinWin efforts on Windows 7 is "the first step to layer the system from a dependency perspective and isolate pieces in their own build trees" and is thus somehow different from the MinWin efforts on Longhorn (Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008). To me, this MinWin description sounds identical to the way Windows 2008 was developed, a process I outline in great detail in an upcoming series of articles for the print Windows IT Pro magazine. Here's a short excerpt:

Internally, Microsoft has restructured the build process for Windows 2008 so that it, like the product itself, is more compartmentalized. There is a main OS build every day, as with previous product versions, but the process of getting revisions into that main build is far more granular than before ... Because of the componentization of the development process with Windows 2008, the ship room strategy has changed since Windows 2003 as well. "It's more evolved now," Alex Hinrichs, the Windows 2008 project manager, said. "We don't just have the main ship room. Now we also have seven distributed ship rooms, run by people who meet with the people checking in code below them. They all have daily meetings, as does the main ship room. The main ship room's agenda is simple: Who in the seven distributed ship rooms is ready to bring code up \[the tree into the main build\]?"

In other words, Windows 2008 appears to be built in exactly the way as described by Russinovich above: Code is added only to the main OS build when the dependency problems in isolated sub-components have been resolved in one of the sub-build trees.

So are these really two completely different technologies? Microsoft may argue otherwise, and certainly Russinovich has the insider's view, but the names are the same, the goals are the same, and the descriptions and functions are almost identical. I'm not saying they're exactly the same, but my guess as an outside looking in is that the MinWin work in Windows 7 is a continuation of work that started in the Longhorn project.

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