Friday, March 24, 2006

Zen and the art of IT marketing

It’s not quite what you’d call enlightenment, but Microsoft executives now know what it’s like to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

That’s pretty much what happened when the company soft-launched its latest portable computer design (see below for more details).

Origami is, or more correctly, was, the codename for a small, portable computer. It’s part palmtop, part Tablet PC and part media playback device. Physically it sits somewhere between palmtops and notebooks.

Like Microsoft’s other recent hardware design, the Tablet PC, you enter data on screen using a stylus. It comes with great built-in communications; usually wi-fi and Bluetooth, but the hardware needed to hook up with 3G data networks is available as an option.

You can surf the net, read notes, give PowerPoint presentations or watch movies on Origami. Some models include built-in cameras. It’s actually a very exciting piece of kit and because Origami is an adjunct to a PC rather than a replacement it could, potentially, kick off a fresh spending wave.

But it probably won’t. For a start, when, or perhaps if, the Origami arrives here prices will probably start at around NZ$1,500 — that’s considerably more than a low-end laptop and much more than even top-specification palmtops.

Microsoft isn’t actually making the hardware. Like other computing devices designed by the company, the hardware is being made and sold by partners. At the time of writing only Samsung had demonstrated sample hardware. Others are said to have products in the pipeline.

So far, none of the IT industry’s really big names have announced plans to make the devices. This speaks volumes. It could be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in Origami. Alternatively, it’s a sign that Microsoft no longer has the ability to arm-twist big hardware brands. Or it may just be the big brands are slow off the mark.

To use the ugly and incomprehensible industry jargon term favoured by Microsoft, Origami represents yet another ‘form factor’. Microsoft chip-making partner Intel might label it ‘a platform’. Origami is also officially referred to as an ‘ultramobile PC’.

Yuck, yuck and yuck. Not only are the terms barbaric, they serve to show the huge gulf between the people trying to sell the products and the consumers who may possibly buy them.

You just know these labels are a complete turn-off to ordinary people. Apple would never make such a gross error.

Part of the iPod’s charm is its name. And its straightforward description as an MP3 or portable music player is instantly understandable. Microsoft and its partners still live in some kind of marketing bubble where Sushi would be marketed as raw, dead fish.

While we’re on the subject of Apple, there’s something very familiar about Origami. The device appears to be channelling the Apple Newton.

It’s roughly the same size — that is, small enough to fit in a large pocket — it works with a stylus and is being marketed on its communications capabilities. In fact, the Origami is a tantalising glimpse of what the Newton could be like today if it were still in production.

Well, not entirely. Although it was widely ridiculed when it was introduced, the Newton was more than a decade ahead of its time. The greatest thing about the Newton was its software — simple and very elegant.

Origami is based on Windows, which is a lost opportunity. Even if you think Windows is a cracking desktop operating system, you have to admit it’s not much cop on handheld systems and even worse on mobile phones.

The Newton trumps Origami in at least one other important way: power consumption. Depending on usage, you could reasonably expect to get about 18 hours out of a Newton in-between battery recharges. For some users that would cover a working week. In tests, the Origami seems to work for about two hours.

If the Origami had Newton-like software, it could be a world beater. This isn’t impossible. There are die-hard enthusiasts who’ve written a Newton operating system emulator that runs on Microsoft Windows. Now there’s a thought.


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