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Origami: A new home for VB applications

The specs for Microsoft's Origami may be a bit lacking, but the portable device offers a huge advantage: your VB apps will run on it, no questions asked.

It's not often that you wake up to discover that there's a whole new class of devices waiting for your code to run on them, but that's what happened to Windows developers this week. You would have had to be pretty soundly asleep to miss the carefully-orchestrated marketing campaign for Microsoft's "Origami" project (even USA Today covered it in the end), but on Thursday the codename veil was lifted and we discovered what was hiding behind it: the new Ultra-Mobile PC, or UMPC for short.

About the size of a hardcover novel, these new beasts are meant to operate an on-the-go niche somewhere between laptops and PDAs. Their specifications are reasonable but not stunning:

  • 7" diagonal 800 x 480 display
  • Input by touch panel or stylus or hidden keyboard
  • WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity
  • Hard drives to 40GB
  • 3 hour battery life

The most interesting thing about these devices, though, is the operating system they run: Windows XP Tablet Edition 2005. That means that all of those applications you've been developing in Visual Basic should run flawlessly on the new devices as soon as they start shipping.

Oh, it won't be as smooth as all that in every case. Certainly, many programs will need a facelift or a full redesign to fit within those less-than-spacious dimensions (and I know I'll show my age if I reminisce about how 640 by 480 used to be enough for any of us, back in the day).

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The new boxes are clearly optimized for stylus or touchscreen data entry, so keyboard-heavy applications may be disadvantaged. And no doubt there will turn out to be some hardware-specific coding that's always seemed safe but that proves troublesome in the new form factor. If you're planning to port an application for the UMPC, don't forget to plan some testing and patching time.

But the point is that you already know how to write code for this platform. It's not like learning to code for the Palm or Blackberry, where you need some sort of emulation library, or even for Windows Mobile, where the .NET Compact Framework does a good job of making it seem like you're working on any other Windows platform. Nope, this is Windows, pure and simple, albeit running without much elbow room. Of course, this doesn't mean you have to run out and buy one of the new toys as soon as they're released. Heck, Microsoft has even released an emulator so you can see what your code will look like when running on these devices, all in the comfort of your regular PC screen.

As with any other new form factor, there's going to be a lack of software specifically targeted at the new devices when they ship. Sure, anything written for Windows theoretically will run, but applications designed to take advantage of the native screen resolution and some of the extra features (like special buttons and pervasive connectivity) will have an advantage in selling to early adopters. And because the early market will be small (by definition, it's a new market, so it starts with a single sale), it won't be dominated at first by major players. There's a lot of room here for small developers to stake out territory. I expect to see games, personal productivity applications, communications applications, and media applications specifically targeted at the UMPC from relatively small vendors in the first wave. Some of these, no doubt, will be written in VB. Perhaps some of them will even be written by you.

Mike Gunderloy is the Senior Technology Partner for Adaptive Strategy, a Washington State consulting firm. You can read more of Mike's work at his Larkware Web site, or contact him at

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