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World of Origami still unfolding

A new round of devices using the Microsoft software will debut at CES, but the minitablet still has a way to go.

Get ready for Origami take two. While Microsoft's minitablet effort may not be quite where the software maker had hoped, the project is ready for another cameo.

This spring, Microsoft attracted huge buzz for the Origami prior to its launch, but as details emerged and the products hit the market, they were roundly criticized as overpriced and underpowered.

Next month, at CES, Microsoft will be back with another round of the tiny computers. The latest tablets, code-named Vistagami because of their Windows Vista support, also will come in a wider range of looks, including some models with keyboards. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is expected to mention some of the new devices in his CES keynote as part of a broader discussion of the new types of computers that will be enabled with Vista, including new all-in-one PCs and other esoteric designs.

But it's unclear whether the new crop of devices will do that much to address the two biggest criticisms of the category: price and battery life.

"Certainly there is progress still to be made in the category," said Mika Krammer, a director in Microsoft's Windows product marketing unit.

Intel has a new platform, McCaslin, that aims to offer more energy-efficient chips, though it is not expected until around mid-year. Taiwanese chipmaker Via Technologies has also exerted a lot of effort in this area.

"Right now we have the lowest power and also the smallest form factor," said Richard Brown, Via's VP of corporate marketing. Brown noted that by switching to its chips, Samsung was able to achieve five hours of battery life on its Q1B tablet, double the life on the original, Intel-based Q1.

Even with some improvements over the course of 2006, the first Origami devices have had very limited appeal.

"They haven't done very well," said IDC analyst Richard Shim. Some of the ultramobile PCs even found their way onto a list of biggest tech disappointments of 2006.

Shim pointed out that the best-selling of the super-tiny devices isn't even an Origami. Sony's UX series devices cost even more than the minitablets and sports a built-in keyboard and built-in wireless. "They figured the audience they are going for," Shim said. "They built a device that audience wanted and they set it at a price point that audience wouldn't mind paying for."

Making Windows more manageable
The first devices are likely to start shipping when Vista goes on sale at the end of the month. For its part, Microsoft plans at CES to show off the updated Origami software it has for Vista. The "touch pack," as the software is known, aims to make Windows more manageable on a device that typically has a screen smaller than 7 inches. Among the additions for Vista is a customized version of the operating system's built-in Windows Photo Gallery that's easy to navigate through touch.

While much of the focus remains on touch-screen abilities, Microsoft is also making way for keyboards, noting that they have become increasingly popular even on smaller devices, such as cell phones.

"There's a lot of emphasis on slide-out keyboards for the newer (devices) you will see at launch," Krammer said.

Not all of the minitablet excitement will be focused on Vista, however. TabletKiosk, one of the early Origami makers, is planning a Vista-based device eventually, but is focused at CES on introducing a more rugged version of its Windows XP-based minitablet. While many of the initial Origami designs were aimed at consumers, TabletKiosk focuses on business uses.

"For our vertical markets, it's what they are looking for...because of the wear and tear these machines get," said TabletKiosk marketing director Gail Levy. The new model will still weigh in at less than 2 pounds and is smaller, but slightly thicker, than the company's existing minitablets. The new model, which will be shown off at CES, uses a Via processor and also boasts the addition of a PC card slot, which customers have been wanting as a way to add a cellular connection.

As for Vista, "a lot of our business is in the enterprise market." Levy said. "They are not asking for it just yet."

One question is whether the Origami really needs to morph into something different to be successful.

Intel is considering whether it should be looking beyond the PC when it comes to these devices. According to a source, the chipmaker is toying with the notion of an ultramobile device, rather than the ultramobile PC, a move that would put more focus on devices that can pull off specific tasks rather than be full-fledged computers.

Krammer said Microsoft does expect that devices will come to market that run something other than Windows.

"It's all about choice," Krammer said, adding that she thinks there's a wide appeal to having a small device that can run the full Windows operating system. "It will be nice to have that option where you can have all the applications that run on full Windows run on your ultramobile PC."

Intel would not comment on its plans to move beyond the PC, but a representative did say that the company still believes it will take time for such devices to take off.

"It's one of these things that is going to be evolutionary," said an Intel representative. "It's baby steps."

Intel likened the evolution to that which took place in cell phones, which started out bulky and expensive, but evolved to be slim, cheap and highly personal.

Via's Brown said the relation to the phone market may be more than just a case of similar evolution. He projected that within a year there will be smart phones that use the same x86 chip architecture used in ultramobile and standard PCs. Using those chips would offer more power and open up phones to the wide range of software development that takes place with Windows. At the same time, that would demand even greater improvements in power consumption in order to get the battery life phone users are accustomed to.

Though big on the idea of the little devices, Intel has been cautious in its forecasts, its representative said. "I don't know that everyone in the industry has been as realistic with their promises."