Saturday, March 11, 2006

Origami, Or Microsoft Bob 2006

The most interesting thing about Origami is how Microsoft manipulated bloggers and journalists into hyping it. Far from the Transformer gadget hinted at (Eight toys in one! Changes from iPod to camcorder to computer and back!), the device is just a small Tablet PC. And Microsoft's only actual new product is a software suite intended to further dumb down Windows XP's user interface.

Unveiled today at CeBIT, the week-long festival of consumer tech and all-day drinking that has more booths than most shows have attendees, Origami is a category of devices officially called the "Ultra-Mobile PC". Like other Tablets, these are full PCs that have hard drives and run Windows XP, so they can run the same applications as any desktop or laptop. The only difference is that they're a bit smaller, with those at CeBIT measuring only 7 inches across.

Intel let attendees at its Developer Forum try out prototypes of even smaller UMPCs earlier this week. They drew a large crowd, but most of us (myself included) didn't realize that the gadgets we were playing with had anything to do with Origami. The closest they came to transforming or folding was a slide-out keypad on some models, so small it felt more like typing on a BlackBerry than a real keyboard.

That's hardly revolutionary. Most people don't find keyboardless PCs practical, so companies like Toshiba and Lenovo have been selling convertible laptops almost since Microsoft first started promoting the Tablet PC (back in 2001). PC makers have always been able to make them smaller, but few have, thanks to problems with usability and battery life. (Some reports say the devices at CeBIT can only go 15 minutes between charges.)

So what's Microsoft actually launching? In a post on the official Origami blog this morning, the project's "#1 cat herder" admits: "In truth, this category has existed for some time." Microsoft's only original contribution is a piece of software called the Microsoft Touch Pack, intended to simplify Windows for people operating the touch screen with their fingers and thumbs, rather than a stylus.

This is obviously aimed at kids (adults' fingers are too big for some of the Intel prototypes), though they'll need to have rich parents. The first devices cost €1,000, which is only within Microsoft's stated $500-$1,000 price range if we use dot-com-era exchange rates.

In Microsoft's defense, some of the UMPCs do have features relatively new to the PC world, such as built-in cameras and GPS receivers. But cell phones have had those for years, and they don't cost upwards of a thousand dollars, run out of power after less than an hour, or take minutes to switch on.


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