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Details unfolding on Microsoft's Origami

Company is working on a minitablet that runs on Windows and could sell for as little as $600, sources tell CNET News.com. Origami: Enough of anything?

As rumors unfurl about a new gadget upcoming from Microsoft, the company's Origami Project is starting to take shape as a very small tablet computer, one perhaps affordable enough to appeal to mainstream consumers.

The concept, which Microsoft plans to detail next month, is built on top of the Windows XP operating system but aims to be a new kind of device, rather than a replacement for existing PCs, according to sources familiar with the effort. With a screen bigger than that of a handheld but smaller than a notebook PC screen, Origami devices won't fit in the pocket, but they'll make it into purses and even the smallest of backpacks, sources said.

Microsoft's goal is to create a blueprint for devices that could sell for $600 or less, although the actual prices will depend greatly on what manufacturers decide to include. Origami is capable of supporting features like GPS, Bluetooth, 3G cellular technology and Wi-Fi, though each of these adds to the cost of the device.

Rumors about the device over the past week. The Origami Project Web site, which is owned by Microsoft, pledges that more information will come Thursday. However, sources say this is likely to be more buzz, with actual details not expected until later in March, likely at the CeBit show that takes place March 9 to 15 in Hannover, Germany.

In a somewhat uncharacteristic move, Microsoft has remained mum on Origami, while fanning the flames with its Web site.

However, Origami doesn't come out of the blue. Microsoft first showed off an Origami-like prototype at last year's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle. At the time, Chairman Bill Gates flashed something with a 6-inch screen and said Microsoft hoped to have it sell for $800 or less, though the company said it didn't know when that would be commercially feasible.

Gates said at the time that significant hardware and software advances were still needed to make the Ultramobile 2007, as the prototype was dubbed, a reality. However, he said a 1-pound, 6-inch device that combines all the power of a PC, a phone and a camera for about $800 would be possible within a couple of years.

"We do believe this is achievable," Gates told the crowd of hardware makers.

Microsoft also reportedly talked about plans for an Origami-like device at a partner conference earlier this month.

A Microsoft representative on Monday declined to offer further details on Origami. Microsoft has confirmed that a video that's been making the rounds is indeed from the software maker, though a representative said it's nearly a year old and represents only the company's "initial exploration into this form factor."

Earlier this year, a small start-up called Dualcor Technologies did announce a minitablet that seems similar to Origami, although it's aimed at businesses. That device, the cPC, uses a Via Technologies processor, has a 5-inch screen and runs Windows XP, though it also has a Windows Mobile 5 cell phone built-in.

Though Microsoft is enjoying considerable buzz about Origami, there's some concern that the hype could overshadow the product itself, a concern Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble voiced on his Web site.

Industry observers note that Microsoft appears to be breaking considerable pricing ground with Origami, but they note that it's still unclear what the specific use of Origami will be, or which, if any, existing devices it will replace. There is some thought that its initial incarnation might appeal primarily to gadget aficionados, rather than mainstream consumers.

Microsoft's Origami is completely distinct from a gadget that National Semiconductor , which also resembled a mini PC, was to perform several functions, and bore the code name Origami.