Crave Talk: Is Origami the future?

The CeBIT 2006 expo saw the full unveiling of Project Origami, or the Ultra Mobile PC, but does such a device have a place in our technological society?

Rory Reid
3 min read

When Kevin Costner's corn field whispered "If you build it, they will come," it was relaying a message to create a baseball field -- a field of dreams on which Costner's character could exorcise his inner demons.

Parallels from the movie can be seen in Microsoft's Project Origami, also known as the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC). Perhaps Microsoft is trying to exorcise one of its own demons -- the unimpressive performance of its Tablet PC, by releasing a smaller, smarter successor. Perhaps Microsoft believes that if the UMPC gets enough press attention, consumers will flock to it in droves -- in other words if they build it, we will come. I don't buy it.

Bill Gates sold us his vision of the Origami as a device that's small enough to fit in your pocket, has an all-day battery life, and is affordable to the masses. It's been  billed as the ultimate 'lifestyle' PC -- one that is highly portable, capable of displaying video, audio, television and still images, and be just as adept at handling office tasks as your existing laptop.

So far, the devices we've seen fail to deliver on this vision. Current iterations, including the Samsung Q1 and Asus R2H, are bulky, overweight, run for less than three hours and are pricey given their relative specifications. These are factors that can be fixed in future products, but time, no matter how great a healer, can't address Origami's most glaring flaw: it's a product searching desperately for a market.

Its feature set is enticing, but its jack-of-all-trades approach and bizarre form factor just don't make sense. It's too small to be used as a home video player, too large to be used as a portable media device and far too fiddly to work as a serious office productivity tool. To get the most from the current clutch of UMPCs, you'll need an external keyboard and a host of USB or PC Card add-ons, all of which diminish its 'ultra mobile' status and purported low cost.

The UMPC isn't the first product to represent Microsoft's vision of ultra-portable mobile computing. Back in 1998, the Jupiter concept PC, which fell somewhere between a laptop and a PDA, was evangelised in much the same way as the Origami. It was small, used a fully fledged Windows operating system, and was said to provide a host of interesting functionality. It failed. Other casualties have included Apple's Newton, and more recently Microsoft's own Portable Media Centers. All are great. All have yet to convince consumers.

We don't think Origami will do any better -- in its current form. You should stick with the specialised gadgets (PSP, handheld organiser, smart phone) that Origami is attempting to replace, as all perform their respective tasks far more efficiently.

The Origami concept has certainly generated buzz, but has too much in common with the ancient Japanese art from which it takes its name. Both take something pretty flimsy and use it to create an aesthetically pleasing but essentially useless object.

What do you think? Is Microsoft applying creativity to bring a new dimension in computing -- or just playing with bits of paper? Let me know here or comment below. -Rory Reid