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Origami is a house of cards - for now

Has Microsoft overdone the hype again?

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Microsoft's Origami project created a fuss at CeBIT the other week, but while most observers gave most of their thought to whether Microsoft was on the right track with Origami, I also found myself noticing the clear differences between Microsoft and Intel on the topic of ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs).

First off, there has been far too much focus on the Origami hype - Microsoft has had a big win there, at least for now. It is worth noting that Origami is only an overlay on Windows XP Tablet edition, and that there's not really any such thing as Origami hardware - that's more Intel's job with its UMPC spec (although VIA also has a finger in the pie - it used CeBIT to launch new low-power CPUs for ultra-mobiles).

Microsoft's designers have obviously been watching the BlackBerry and Treo market, because the most obvious addition Origami makes to XP Tablet (XPT) is an on-screen keyboard designed to be operated by the thumbs. That's why the Origami devices pictured so far have that wide retro-looking frame around the screen - it gives you something to hold them by as you type.

(Even the onscreen keyboard is not new though - it's called DialKeys, and Microsoft bought it in from a company called Fortune Fountain last year.)

By contrast, most of Intel's UMPC prototypes have keyboards, either ones that slide out or flip around. Microsoft's response has been to suggest that Origami users should get an external USB or Bluetooth keyboard.

No folding needed
Does a mini-tablet require Origami? Apparently not - the models Intel showed at CeBIT all ran normal XPT, in some cases with the addition of third-party software to make them easier to use. For example, one was running software from StreetDeck which provides a gesture-based interface.

Brad Graff, Intel's UMPC marketing director, said they had only discovered this software a few weeks earlier, but that it made a UMPC easier to control with just a fingertip - when docked on a car dashboard, say. Simply write an M on the screen with your finger and it goes to the music player, for example.

Today's UMPCs, whether keyboardless or not, all share another problem - battery life. For example, ECS Elitegroup whose H70 Origami mini-tablet will sell under the Founder brand, said that its device will have a battery life of two hours or less.

Microsoft reckons we will use Origami to watch films on the go, but at that rate they had better be short ones.

ULV lurking in the hills
ECS says that while current models run Dothan Pentium-M or Celeron-M chips, the next generation of UMPCs will be based on the ultra low voltage (ULV) version of the Yonah Core Duo processor, which is due in the second half of 2006, and should double the battery life. That's still only four hours though, and hardly the all-day device that many people would like.

Even Intel acknowledges that the current generation of UMPC hardware has a problem here. It is targeting a 10-fold reduction in the CPU power budget over the next two years from 5W today to 0.5W, and developing other power-saving technologies such as Dynamic Display Power Optimisation (D2PO), says Graff.

D2PO allows the screen to swap between progressive scan mode for high-motion content and lower power interlaced scan mode for static or low-motion images, and was jointly developed by Intel and TMD.

Graff adds that real power benefits won't appear until Intel replaces its current Napa mobile platform with the next generation Santa Rosa platform, due in the first half of 2007. This will take the 64-bit Merom dual-core processor due later this year and add Crestline, which is a new chipset with integrated D2PO graphics, plus the Kedron 802.11n wireless LAN module.

Looking good on paper
There are some interesting ideas for Origami, though. ASUS, one of the other hardware partners announced by Microsoft at the Origami launch, showed a model with built-in GPS for navigation.

And the third hardware partner, Samsung (read our review), includes a separate media-player capability - apparently a copy of XP Embedded, in ROM - which allows it to be turned on and used almost instantly, with no need to boot XPT.

Incidentally, one of the rumours concerning Origami that turned out false was that it would have the main operating system in flash memory, enabling it to boot almost instantly. Instead, it boots from hard disk in the traditional manner, although Microsoft claims to have speeded the process up a little, and Origami developers say they mostly use suspend mode anyhow.

What of the mini-tablet form factor - one element that's common to both the Intel and Microsoft concept for the UMPC? Despite its developers' claims, it is not pocket-sized, unless perhaps you have a raincoat with particularly big pockets.

The too-small screen
They claim too that it will be useful as a second PC, to connect to e-mail and the web when travelling, and that it will support standard versions of Office and Internet Explorer. But its screen size is specified as seven inches or less, with a minimum resolution of 800x480, so how much screen space will be left for visible content once Microsoft's apps have added all their scrollbars, toolbars and other junk?

There is scepticism too about the efficiency of XPT as a wirelessly-connected platform (the Origami spec includes both WiFi and Bluetooth). The way XP continually polls its network connection might be tolerable in the US where all-you-can-eat data tariffs are common, but it could prove very expensive elsewhere, where 3G data or GPRS is generally metered.

And lastly, Origami doesn't do anything that a specialised gadget - an iPod, a Playstation Portable, a BlackBerry - can't do better. Need a two-pound laptop to take on holiday? They already exist - and they have keyboards and decent-sized screens.

Perhaps I'm wrong. Certainly, seven-inch tablet PCs should be useful in a number of vertical applications, such as form-filling or as an electronic notebook for journalists.

And things will change a bit once UMPCs have a decent battery life, perhaps in 18 or 24 months time - although by then, all those other electronic items should have longer battery life too.

Microsoft's hardware specifications for Origami
Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 OS
Approximately 7" diagonal display (or smaller)
Minimum 800x480 resolution
Approximately 2 pounds (900g)
Integrated touch panel
WiFi- and Bluetooth-enabled


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