Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Origami: the next iPod ... or yet another turkey?

The engineers have a dream. They want to cram the sum total of human knowledge into a single squealing box and create a universal machine … and every year it takes a step closer to becoming reality.

Last week, the quest to create an all-singing, all-dancing device took a purported great leap forward. Microsoft launched its Ultimate Mobile PC (UMPC), a lightweight, book-sized portable computer billed as the gadget that 21st-century mankind will use to communicate, entertain and work, wherever or whenever they want to.

For months there was little more than a codename, Project Origami, until the new machine was unveiled on Thursday in a whirlwind of consumer hype at the CeBIT technology trade fair at Hanover in Germany. The machine’s debut brings to a close four years of research, design and top-secret commercial collaboration.

The starting point, as it happens, is already fairly far along the curve. Although Microsoft expects many manufacturers to jump in with their own models, first to market will be the Samsung Q1, which weighs less than 2lbs and comes with a seven-inch touch-sensitive colour screen that can be operated using either your thumbs or a traditional stylus. Expected in the shops later this year, it will come with a full version of Windows XP installed, a 30-60GB hard drive and virtually all the functionality and power you’d expect from a desktop PC.

The devices, which will have a two-and-a-half-hour battery life, do not have a built-in keyboard – although one could be linked using either Bluetooth or a USB port – and are expected to hit the shelves at around the £600-£700 mark.

Pitched squarely at the consumer market, we now know that they are to be sold as the handbag gizmo that will enable you to listen to music, read the news, watch videos and exchange e-mails from the number 42 bus and that they are sleek, futuristic and undoubtedly easy on the eye. The only question remaining, really, is whether this bird is going to fly.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the reality is that Microsoft had no choice but to stick its brand into the crowded sphere of high-tech entertainment, and what becomes of the project will depend entirely upon consumer reaction.

The amazing growth of the iPod has been based as much on marketing as technical strength, and the Seattle propaganda machine will have to replicate this success if it is to survive – there is no alternative bar the UMPC’s rapid demise.


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