Microsoft seemed to be on a good thing earlier this year with its hyped Origami project. Then they axed the cool name and started calling these things UMPCs. Ugh. Anyway, that’s merely cosmetic, but is indicative of the type of problems the UMCP seems to have (I won’t even come into contact with one of these for quite some time, so my comments are all at least second hand).
Here’s Michael Gartenberg’s enthusiastic comments on the UMPC platform, which is a rather more forward-looking analysis than the not-so-positive reviews (and Walt Mossberg isn't just anybody) based on actually using the things in their current form.
Self-confessed enthusiast(s?) over at umpcbuzz.com have a great dot-point list of why this type of platform is great; I agree with them all. I really do think that slate-type form factors with direct pointing/touch interfaces is the way we’re heading with computers. There’s just 20 years of mouse+keyboard inertia to overcome and some new interface ideas, paradigms even, are required — and required to be well implemented. The problem is that Windows has been pushing all this Tablet PC stuff, and now this mini-tablet stuff (which I find evolutionary in a good way) without a good usage model. The tech is there and it’s great. But the “killer apps” aren’t and it’s because Windows wasn’t designed to be interfaced in this way.
As I wrote once before, I’m actually fairly concerned that Apple doesn’t have the momentum on handwriting recognition to actually create a Tablet PC of its own at the moment. But that’s a side note.
So what are people saying about the implementation of the first UMPC? Via Daring Fireball, here’re David Pogue’s thoughts. Before I bootstrap my own brief comments off his, allow me to recommend watching his hilariously silly video on the whole thing. It’s actually a succinct way to summarise its flaws. Back to the article, he writes:
Standard screen resolution on the Ultra Mobile PC is an oddball 800 by 480 pixels. Those are such peculiar dimensions, in fact, that many of Windows’s own dialogue boxes don’t fit… In software, this is what’s known as a Big Oops.
This is really terrible. Either it’s a PC or it’s not. Get the interface right regardless. I would suspect that this type of thing should be corrected in the upcoming Vista Tablet versions of Windows given the extra implementation experience they’ve had with things like this now.
For example, there’s an on-screen keyboard; a handwriting-recognition window that offers excellent accuracy but makes editing brutally frustrating; rudimentary speech recognition; and Windows Journal, a free-form note-taking program that lets you delete, search and move your handwritten phrases.
I really like the look of the on-screen keyboard shown below; without even seeing a high-res image of it, or seeing its keycaps, I suspect for it to be useful it should be more compact and more transparent. By all accounts, however, it’s not the best thing since predictive text, which the excessive thumb motion reminds me of.
And hang on a second. Didn’t Apple’s Newton make it really easy to edit text by incorporating familiar (to some) copyediting symbols/methods?
Oh well. As the people talking about the good stuff say: this is really a good step in the right direction. Whether this technology becomes ubiquitous I think depends heavily on the software makers to re-think their approach to designing the interface of their applications. And I’m really hoping Apple makes a play here, too — the competition would be good for everyone.