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MS, Intel gear up to unveil ultra-mobile tablet PC

Taking the fight to Apple's iPod and Sony's PSP?

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Microsoft's so-called Origami Project, due to be launched on Thursday, appears to be its early version of the ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) concept Intel has been touting of late, if an allegedly leaked Flash version of a promo video of the product is anything to go by. Quite apart from being a potential iPod competitor, the device could well prompt some interesting techology ownership questions.

The video shows a series of media-savvy twentysomethings using a paperback book-sized tablet that's part PC, part PDA and part digital media player. It's wireless too, and would appear to have GPS on board. So, instead of carting around notebooks, we'll all soon be carrying pen-based micro PCs with decent enough handwriting recognition we won't need a keyboard any more.

Another scene shows the machine running a game, so perhaps the unit's also the much-rumoured PSP-rival, MS is said to have been working on.

It's nothing new, of course. Sony has been offering one of these for over a year now, and a variety of compact mobile PCs have come to market from the likes of OQO and others. Many already run full versions of Windows, rather than Windows Mobile or other, 'cut-down' versions of the OS.

The problem, as ever, remains battery life and the provision of sufficient processing power to handle all the intensive stuff running under the hood like true handwriting recognition. Enter Intel, which last August announced its new focus on developing processors that deliver the best performance per Watt. At the time, CEO Paul Otellini demo'd a "handtop" computer - a paperback book-sized tablet with full wireless functionality and a processor capable of running Windows Vista, yet capable of running on batteries for a full day.

More recently, it's been giving up the device the name "ultra-mobile PC", and hawking prototypes around to some journalists. It's been suggested Intel will reveal more at its bi-annual Developer Forum, which kicks off in a week's time, just ahead of CeBIT.

There's a disconnect, and it's timing. Otellini said Intel's goal is to ship a 0.5W processor with sufficient horsepower to run Windows Vista by 2010. Microsoft's Origami Project, according to its website, is due to be unveiled on 2 March 2006.

Assuming Microsoft isn't in the game of announcing product that isn't going to ship for another four years, it will unveil a machine with more modest battery life than that, so early MS UMPCs will not be the ubiquitous wireless multi-mode devices portrayed in the video. At least not if you want anything more than a few hours' usage at a time.

But back to Apple. What's most interesting for Apple in all this is not necessarily the iPod rivalry - CEO Steve Jobs recently talked up the idea of Microsoft offering its own media player rather than simply providing the core technology to third parties - but the unit's use of a clickwheel control, one of the defining features of its music player line-up. An opportunity for a patent infringement spat, or the basis for MS' continuing development of Office:Mac?

And all this talk of MS' Origami Project and Intel's UMPC come at a time when not only is Apple trying to patent a range of tablet-oriented UI innovations, looking for handwriting recognition engineers and gearing up to announce new "fun products" tomorrow. No wonder rumours of a Mac tablet have had such a revival of late. ®

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