Origami folds under expectation

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates first told the world about plans for an ultra-portable PC in April 2005 at the annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference. He envisioned a gadget that ran all day on a single battery charge, cost less than $500 (£300), had a touch screen and ran games, music and multimedia. The next information the world heard was via a leaked video that showed off the abilities of an early prototype. By then the project had acquired the code-name Origami. The promotional video, which Microsoft said was a year old and thereby hinted that the gadget had got better in the meantime, showed the small handheld being used by a variety of folks. It could play music, games, send photos, help navigate and generally act as an all-round digital helper. If the first Origami devices had delivered on that vision then Microsoft might well have a hit on its hands. Unfortunately, early information about the first Origami device, aka the ultra-portable PC, shows that the reality falls far short of the glossy video and Bill Gates' hopes. Lukewarm response Samsung was the first hardware partner to show off a working ultra-portable device, the Q1, on the opening morning of the Cebit hi-tech fair in Hanover. The sleek, black gadget runs the tablet edition of Windows XP and has been prepared as a multimedia device that can play music, video and games. Gone though are the low price and long battery life. Prototypes are reportedly lasting only 15 minutes before needing re-charging and the finished devices are expected to go for three hours before needing a fill up. The price is also higher than expected. Samsung said when the Q1 goes on sale in Europe in April it will cost about 1,000 euros (£699). Later devices are expected to get closer to the original vision but the general reaction to the fine print about the ultra-portable PC has been lukewarm at best. As many Microsoft watchers have pointed out, the first version of the ultra-portable PC does nothing that other, cheaper devices do not do. Many people have portable handheld computers that they play games on, and on which they can store music, images and video. Even fully functioning laptops can be purchased for less. Early flops With Origami devices, Microsoft was trying to use developments in technology to create a new category of gadget, like Apple's iPod, that stole market share from the many other portable machines already on sale. It hoped it would give people what they liked about laptops - the familiar Windows interface - without any of the compromises on features mobile phones often demand. Samsung joined in, with the company's vice president of digital media business, Dr David Steel, saying its Q1 could act as a replacement for Sony's PSP game gadget. He also said it would usurp personal digital assistants like the iPaq, personal music players such as the iPod and a laptop. All the features of those gadgets, he claimed, are rolled into the Q1. History might well be a guide to the potential of the Q1 and the family of ultra-portable PCs that will undoubtedly emerge. Market leaders To begin with the first versions of many Microsoft products have rarely set the world alight. Microsoft's software for mobile phones is up to version five and it, plus the phones that use it, are starting to win wide acceptance. Many businesses like the tools that come with the software, which help them manage an unruly herd of mobile devices. Such acceptance was widely lacking for earlier versions and handsets - though it should be pointed out that Microsoft still lags way behind rivals in the mobile industry. Also history has a record of forgetting the nay-sayers if a product or plan becomes wildly successful - though thanks to the Internet many of those early negative comments are being preserved. The reaction of many Apple fans to the early iPod slated the company for being so unimaginative as to bring out a portable music player. Now Apple dominates the portable music player market and has helped to bring about huge changes in the music industry. Microsoft can only hope that the Origami unfolds to be as big a success. UKFast is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites.

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