HP's new OmniBook?

SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- Some 15 years ago, I was working as managing editor for Windows Magazine when HP came into our offices to show us a mind-blowing ultra-portable laptop: The OmniBook 300. Leaked photos of HP's new Compaq 2133 take me back to that meeting.

The OmniBook 300 was made not by the PC group at HP but, curiously, by the calculator division. The OmniBook was indestructable, had a fantastic keyboard and was, for the time, very small, light and portable. It also had two cool innovations. First, system files, operating system and office suite were installed not on the hard drive, but on a theoretically replaceable ROM card. The OmniBook had and needed only 2 MB of RAM because everything installed in ROM, executed in ROM, and didn't use memory. The second innovation was a pop-out mouse. You pressed a button, and out it popped. Control of the mouse pointer came not from registering movement under the mouse, as most mice do, but by the movement of the "popsicle stick" piece of plastic that connected mouse to laptop.

The OmniBook had a nine-inch, black-and-white VGA screen, was 6.4 x 11.1 x 1.4 inches, weighed 3 pounds.

Sadly, the OmniBook line suffered a slow and painful death. It started out revolutionary, and evolved, model by model into something bland and ordinary, only to be killed off completely when HP bought Compaq.

Since then, HP hasn't been able to innovate much in the ultra-portable space.

Fast forward to today. The Engadget blog this morning posted what are probably leaked pictures of the HP Compaq 2133, a new ultra-mobile PC (UMPC).

We don't know much about the 2133 other than the pictures and a smattering of specs. But all available information points to a new OmniBook. The 2133 has the same basic dimensions as the OmniBook 300: 9-inch screen, nearly full-size keyboard and between 2.5 and 3 pounds. I don't have exact numbers on the height, width and depth, but the 2133 is very close to the OmniBook. This basic configuration, if memory serves (I owned three OmniBooks), was ideal for the kind of anywhere computing UMPC evangelists have been promising.

Of course, the Compaq 2133 will be 15 years better than the OmniBook, with USB support, Wi-Fi, built-in webcam and other goodies. Sadly, the OS probably won't execute in ROM and the mouse probably won't pop out. Sadder still is that the Compaq 2133 is rumored to come with either Windows Vista or Linux, not Windows XP. Windows Vista is only slightly better than the OmniBook's Windows 3.1. Hopefully HP will offer a good flavor of Linux.

The biggest and most exciting difference between the OmniBook and the Compaq 2133 is price. The 2133 is rumored to cost less than $700 -- possibly far less -- while the OmniBook cost about $2,000.

Obviously, the OmniBook and Compaq 2133 are very different creatures. But if HP can recreate the usability and friendliness of the OmniBook in its 2133 -- and toss in some surprise innovations, as the OmniBook designers did -- then we can all welcome HP back into game, the ASUS Eee PC will have a real competitor, and finally we'll have some real choice in the UMPC market.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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