Microsoft is backing a new ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) format, code-named Origami. If it is successful, it could make mini-tablet PCs popular across a wide spectrum of users in the education and business markets, as well as at home.
Sales of these book-sized PCs are not expected to overtake smartphones or notebooks, but Microsoft and its partners are hoping to find a profitable niche between the two.
We have seen small computers before, but three things distinguish Origami. First, it features a full version of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition - and later, Vista - in an easily portable machine. Second, it is operated using a stylus or finger, so it can be used standing up. Third, it aims to be affordable. Microsoft has a target starting price of about £350, and this should be reduced in the future.
Earlier UMPCs, such as Motion Computing's LS800 Tablet PC and the OQO model 01+, have attracted some business users, but they are more expensive than Origami-style machines, and they are not generally available on the high street. Origami UMPCs should be.
Mika Krammer, director of Windows client mobility at Microsoft, said, "The price is lower because we decided to use components that are already available and used in the market today."
One example of this is the seven-inch screen, familiar from portable DVD players. It would be easy to produce UMPCs with more advanced specifications, but this could make them too expensive.
Microsoft has also added a software bundle to make Origami PCs easier to use. Called Touchpack, it sits on top of the Windows operating system and provides a simplified interface that is modified for finger operation and optimised for a seven-inch screen. It also includes a full-screen program launcher and Dialkeys, an on-screen keyboard designed for typing with the thumbs.
Small size, low weight, ease of use and wireless connectivity could make Origami systems attractive for people working outside the office, as it saves lugging around a notebook or Tablet PC. Origami UMPCs are not ruggedised or sealed for field work in all weathers, but they should be robust enough for white-collar tasks - and attractive if the price is right.
Battery life will be a major challenge, with the first Origami UMPCs only lasting as long as an average notebook PC. However, more efficient chips are on the way.
Origami will have what Krammer calls "a staged introduction". It will start this year with a handful of suppliers running XP on chips from Intel and Via. More manufacturers will enter the market with Vista, and it is possible that AMD or Transmeta will offer alternative processors.
Krammer said, "We are hoping to learn from early deployments how people adopt these products and, more importantly, what they do not like about them, so that when we go for a mass market appeal, we fix those elements that create resistance to people benefiting from this product."
Jack Schofield is computer editor at The Guardian
This was first published in April 2006