Patient: Excuse me, doctor, but what is that thing that youre checking my medical records on?
Doctor: Hold on, its a peaceful swan right now, but Im sorry to tell you that Ive been forced to change it into a striking dragon.
As a licensed physician and expert in the field of human-computer interaction, Dr. Russ Cucina is already studying the impact that emerging technologies are having in the medical industry.
Presented with Microsofts new ultramobile PC blueprint, dubbed as Origami, the doctor said the devices could someday find a home alongside the PDAs, tablet computers and other gadgets that are already revolutionizing the medical field.
Cucina, who is an assistant professor at the University of California at San Francisco working in its Medical Informatics research group, believes the Origami platform could prove itself as a useful form factor somewhere between the PDA and the laptop, based on its small footprint and powerful software underpinnings built on Microsofts Windows platforms.
“I do think theres a lot of interest by physicians and nurses for ultraportable PCs, especially for physicians who split their time between inpatient and outpatient settings and need something that can travel in and out of the hospitals and offices with them,” said Cucina.
“[Origami] is only hardware at this point, and it wont be interesting unless theres the right software to run on it,” he said.
“But if you get the right combination together, something like this could help make real the vision of a wireless physician who moves around and accesses clinical data on the fly.”
To a person, IT experts ranging from users like Cucina to applications vendors and industry analysts observed that the long-term plan for Origami appears to be aimed primarily at consumers.
However, said the industry watchers, niche market opportunities among business users with very specific needs could help drive initial adoption of the devices.
Origami is a blueprint for very small, roughly 2.5-pound, 1-inch-thick devices with a 7-inch touch-sensitive screen that are roughly the size of today portable DVD players.
Unlike other diminutive computers, the so-called ultramobile PCs will run on a standard version of the software giants Windows XP operating system, and also utilize the firms touch screen user interface program.
Microsoft executives confirmed that they do have enterprise plans for Origami.
“We feel that [ultramobile PCs] will eventually be of great use to a number of different audiences and realize that UMPCs could be of great value for enterprise workers looking to bridge the gap between their home life and work,” said Mika Krammer, director of Windows Client Mobility.
“As for specific verticals, it really remains to be seen, but we see endless possibilities for [Origami] by all types of mobile professionals.”
Analysts said that based on the apparent limitations of the Origami, initial prototypes of which feature no traditional keyboard, IT managers at most enterprises wont likely be inspired to run out and start buying the machines in large numbers.
However, in vertical markets where the devices smaller-than-a-tablet PC physical footprint and more-powerful-than-a-PDA processing abilities fit specific demands, they said, the ultramobile computers could someday be a hit.
“Almost all of these devices tend to find a home somewhere in some vertical application,” said Steve Baker, analyst with NPD Group.
“The tablet is a great example of that, as casual users dont have much of a use for them, but developers in some verticals found the right way to market to shipping companies, insurance adjusters and other remote workers.”
The same types of companies may take a look at Origami machines, the first iterations of which will be built by manufacturers including Samsung, Founder and Asus, said Baker.
And while the devices will someday likely be more oriented toward playing movies for consumers or providing Office applications to people who simply dont need a full-sized laptop, vertical opportunities among enterprises could help keep the platform moving forward until that wider audience has been established, Baker observed.
As with Cucina, who also works as an unpaid adviser to device maker OQO and pointed out that the companys 01+ gadget, which runs on Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC software, is already heading in the same direction, most experts agreed that it will be the types of applications developed for the devices that will ultimately determine their fate among business users.
Next Page: Coordination challenges.
JiYoung Kim, director of marketing for mobile CRM applications vendor Vettro, said that she could easily imagine her company creating software for use on ultramobiles like the Origamis in the future, but she said part of the problem with addressing such opportunities in the past has been a lack of coordination among hardware makers and software developers.
“One of the conversations were always having with Microsoft is the challenge faced by companies like us with when something like the Java-based devices first came out,” said Kim.
“The vision was write once and work for all, but it hasnt ever really worked out that way.”
If Microsoft and its manufacturer partners are serious about courting business users, Kim said, they will need to make sure that the software development community receives sufficient support.
“The only platform provider that has succeeded to that end so far is RIMs BlackBerry, Microsoft software has a lot of nuances, and you dont want to have to optimize applications for each different device,” she said.
“When we see new devices like Origami come on the market, we usually have to wait and see where demand is before going after it; its a chicken and egg scenario, as theres always a debate of who needs to support whom between device makers and software providers.”
“Microsoft will need to drive some level of standardization to keep people from pointing fingers at each other in terms of delivering applications on time,” Kim said.
Other experts pointed out that various sub-notebook PCs made by vendors such as Sony and Fujitsu already deliver some of the benefits Microsoft could advertise around Origami in pushing the devices into the business world.
However, said Sam Bhavnani, analyst at Current Analysis, it is “great news” to see someone as powerful as Microsoft thinking about new PC designs.
While the lack of keyboard and some other features makes Origami a likely fit only in some niche vertical markets at best, the analyst said, it will only benefit users to have another alternative on the market, he believes.
“Tablets were a total failure in the corporate market, but there was some success in verticals like education and you could see some applications like that for Origami,” Bhavnani said.
“On the other hand, the new generation of smart phone type devices will compete with something like this, but Origami doesnt go in your pocket; it could make travel life a lot easier for executives, traveling sales people or remote workers in certain niche markets.”
Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds predicted that it will wont likely be until 2008 when enough Origami devices and applications reach the market to build any sort of momentum for the platform among business users, but he said that he could envision workers such as restaurant wait staffers or field service technicians adopting the smaller PCs.
Another issue that Microsoft and its partners will need to address in order to make that vision a reality, said Reynolds, will be the demand by some business users to be able to integrate the Origamis with traditional desktop PCs.
“Most business people will still need some manner to synch up with their other computers, as you dont want two separate PC environments to manage,” he said.
“If that could be addressed with a shared system or something that allows the smaller device to connect to a faster processor or more memory, that could help drive a lot of interest.”