The Origami hype-machine

Pity Microsoft sometimes.

What possess them to send out hype announcements just before a Steve Job’s keynote/event? I know Apple has a tiny marketshare, but in the geek world, their mind share is huge. This is why Apple’s announcements top Google News Sci/Tech section even after a mediocre product announcement.

More is the pity because Origami is actually a very interesting device.

(Be warned, the Origami website linked is pointless.)

Microsoft’s Origami

What is Origami?

The biggest problem with origami will be explaining what it is. The tag line appears to be a unhelpful and unbelievable “you are FREE” which proves, yet again, that Microsoft’s strength lies in its monopoly position, not in its marketing.

Physically the device seems bigger than any PDA or even a PSP, but smaller than a tablet PC or subnotebook, that’s about all you can say, but thankfully a year-old promo video has been leaked, that give clues to what it is supposed to be.

(Be warned the video has incredibly slow pacing.)1

The good thing about the video is they show clear use-cases about what the device is supposed to do.

Origami use-cases

A first use-case shows Origami being used for browsing the internet (MSN Hotmail) so we can gather there is some sort of 802.11 support. I gather that this part is to show that you are “free” to take your computer away from the desktop.

A second use-case is as a note-taking device. I think Microsoft imagines you being able to attach these notes throughout the applications on the device without any clue on how they will do this. But the model here would be a mix of BugMe! and Pennovate Notes.

There may be some handwriting recognition here, but this idea is overrated, instead it should use handwriting recognition to attempt to index the content to metadata (for searchability), but it isn’t important to actually convert to text. (This way, handwriting accuracy can be poor but still be very usable—think about how Amazon implements “Search Inside the Book.”).

A third use-case is using Origami as an on-screen drawing tablet. The best example of this is Alias Sketchbook Pro, but for this to be implemented in a way that is good, the stylus would need to have multiple levels of sensitivity, something that would add too much to the cost of the device.

A fourth use-case shows it as a GPS device with integrated color mapping. Okay, that seems realistic, what doesn’t is how they show it not tethered to anything. Integrated GPS? How much is this device going to cost? (They must really love this feature, because they show this again later in the promo, though the second time the thing may just be a map sketch of some driving directions.)

A fifth use case shows it as an iPod replacement. What else would you expect? People even think their Palm or cell phone is an iPod replacement.

The sixth use case is a great idea: the Origami tethered to a digital camera (in their example, the camera is a Leica Digilux 2) as a hard drive-based photo storage unit. The large display then shows a preview of the image with histogram and metadata (seems a bit overpowerered…but we’ll let that slide). In other words, it’s a better version of thet P2000, if money is no object. I could really use such a thing for photography/hiking (the iPod Photo + Camera Connector is a terrible option), but then again the battery life would probably be a joke and totally ruin the point of carrying one, even if I could afford it.

The seventh use case has them inking and sending the image wirelessly via cell phone. So I guess we add Bluetooth 2.0 to the list of support.

The eighth use case shows it in a docking station, except the docking station more like a tablet or subnotebook docking station, than a cradle. Think tablet PC, or the Antelope’s MCC.2

The ninth use case is as a really big media center PC remote. Think Salling Clicker only on a device that weighs a couple pounds.

Back to the second use-case. Origami should be able to do something BugMe can’t do (handheld interface limitation)—something akin to FlySketch’s highlight and capture interface. Coming up with such a clever UI is quite beyond Microsoft, but stealing… well that should be right up their alley. In Microsoft’s example, they are just attaching a “print this image” note to an image or adding checkboxes to a PDF(?).

The tenth use case is as a video game machine about three times the size of a Sony PSP. One sort of wonders what games it will play and who would bother making games for it, or modifying existing games to use the questionable processor and nonstandard controllers on it. BTW, in the promo it is playing Halo—like that will be possible in a package that small. Unless the platform graphics hardware is standardized, Origami will be a nightmare for the game developer. (If this wasn’t the case, then explain why the TapWave Zodiac never caught on?)

The eleventh use case shows it connected to a keyboard integrated in the flipcase for the Origami. This is a great idea when you compare it to products like OQO and Tiqit build-in, not-very-usable thumb boards. Making this a wireless peripheral like the Stowaway keyboard is smart and saves money once you already commit to bluetooth. In this example, it is connected via 802.11 to an instant messaging session while the person is waiting at a train station.

The last use case is just a summary of the rest. The person takes a snapshot with their cell phone (which magically seems to have a high quality 200mm zoom on it), transfers it to their Origami, annotates it, and send it via e-mail to a friend. (If they had any imagination, the person should have taken the same “You are FREE” photo that appears on the screen in the first use-case of the video, bringing the whole thing into full circle.)

Ironically, the video doesn’t show anything about the only stated use-case for Origami. Nor was there any example where the person was watching movies or television, something the iPod video is really weak at with its tiny screen.

I guess we’ll really find out the truth in another week. And then we can judge how good Microsoft’s viral marketing campaign is.

You will

This video reminds me of the “You will” ad campaign by AT&T demonstrating technologies like FasTrak/EZ-Pass, long before they actually were created.

Obviously, you can do all of Origami now, you just need a pretty large gadget bag (cell phones, PDA, tablet PCs, notebook PCs, iPods, media reader, PSP/Nintendo). Also navigating so many different UI’s makes the integration really weak.

If you were to get a device like Origami that does it now (as you can see, it is possible if you start with Windows Media Center PC and add PocketPC and TabletPC functionality and manage to get it running on a Transmeta Crusoe), it would cost a small fortune to bundle all those into a single device. Heck, scaling from notebooks to Tablet PC adds enough to the cost and increases the fragility that sales of Tablet PCs are a joke. Even then, if price were no object, there would be some severe design tradeoffs (battery, video capability, size, interface, processing power, hard drive capacity, wireless).

Finally, the bolting TabletPC and PocketPC functionality onto a Media Center PC actually makes the integration very weak. Anyone remember how many iterations of Windows CE->Pocket PC->Windows Mobile we’ve been through—and Microsoft has yet to find a magic formula for that. Remember, Apple’s iPod is not running Mac OS X, but the externally designed PortalPlayer, and it has excellent integration to iTunes. Apple has a proven track record on integration of consumer devices; Microsoft doesn’t.

Also, like all computers it is the jack of all trades, master of none. Someone please explain to me why I want to listen to music on an integrated device half the size of my 17″ Powerbook? Or even play video games for that matter, even if it were possible to play Halo?

Having said that, I love the idea. But Apple’s iPod is successful because it does one thing really well. Cell phone’s killer app is the phone (surprise). If you look at devices, the only successful integrated device that has supplanted specialized ones is the personal computer. Notebooks have finally outsold desktops, but it did it by supplanting them.

Do we honestly expect Origami to supplant the notebook any time soon? And if not, what is Origami’s specialty?

Apple and the tablet

Rumor sites are constantly speculating when/if Apple will introduce a iTablet. The Origami promo video is a wonderful example of why not: a fundamental difference in design philosophy.

Microsoft goes around remixing other peoples idea into a smorgasbord “platform” product implemented in software and asks others to design hardware and develop software apps for it (and then later, they cherry pick the best ones). Apple starts out with an application first, then designs a device or computer to fit around it, and then tries to turn it into a platform.

Don’t just ask yourself where the iPod would be without iTunes. Ask instead if the there would be a Mac mini without iLife; if the iSight would have been introduced without iChat AV; if the Apple remote would exist without Front Row; if the iPod video would exist without iTunes video downloads and vodcasts.3

Instead of speculating whether Apple will make a tablet or Origami-like device, first find a compelling application that would make the tablet the ideal hardware format.

It is simply not enough to say, “Gee, for a little more than an iBook, Apple could make an iTablet.”

Origami—just a crumpled up piece of paper?

The biggest hurdle is that there is no way Microsoft is going to introduce hardware themselves. Origami tries to be so many things, that finding the sweet spot, if there is one, is even beyond Microsoft’s coffers. Instead Origami is just a concept and an operating system (and given their history, a darn frustrating one at that) that intends to herald a new niche: an ultramobile PC.

Nobody remembers the Smart Display’s niche; the radio watch niche is DOA; nobody is buying anything in the Tablet PC niche; the PDA niche is very volitile; Microsoft has no presence in the portable gaming niche; and they have gotten their asses handed to them in the portable music player niche. Is this really a company to be trusted to make you an OS to base a company and untested product on?

Sad. It looks so cool.

1 The video was produced for Microsoft’s Origami project over a year ago. The reason the pacing is so slow is it tries to fit every possible use of the device into the same segment and visually speaks like reading a storybook for pre-schoolers. That believe that “more is better” is so Microsoft—just like this video that Bill passed along two days ago. When you read this article you will really see that trait in spades. Origami is a product that seems to want to be too much, instead of trying to be one thing really well. If you want to see a really good set of promo videos, check out the videos Apple did to promote Aperture.
2 What ever happened to Antelope? The only thing on their website is this hilarious video.

3 A corollary: Want a larger iPod screen? Apple needs to secure movie content first or the media reader niche needs to be 100x bigger than it is.

10 thoughts on “The Origami hype-machine

  1. OrigamiPortal is a reference site for all things Origami.

    The more I see about this product, the more I think the lack of a solid reference platform and a single killer app is going to kill it.

    In other news, do you notice they’re using XOOPS for this site? Not to bag on it too much, but isn’t this typically “PeeCee”? I mean XOOPS has always looked ugly as sin—it’s a CMS for people who were overly anal about PHPNuke. For reference, compare it to iLounge and iPodding, iPod portal sites or Automator World which is devoted to the “Automator” application built into Tiger.

    Guys, have some pride in your insta-portal.

  2. Origami/UPMC is officially announced today.

    I want to review the things I guessed in this article last week that were not known but proved to be true:

    1) Origami is just the operating system. Microsoft would not risk making thier own device (a la XBox) because they can’t actually think of a “killer app” for thsi device.
    2) Origami is the same as UPMC.
    3) Origami is basically a hacked version of Windows Media Center/Tablet PC.
    4) The devices would not have most of the features shown in the promo due to costs: level-sensitive pens, high end graphics hardware, camera, GPS, software apps (drawing program, remote, mapping, camera driver for tethered operations, e-mail, photo viewer). Note that the camera and GPS feature will be in the more expensive model from ASUS.
    5) 802.11 and Bluetooth would have to be bundled.

    Some things I missed:
    1) Instant on playback of music and video.
    2) A launcher, sudoku replaces solitaire, and a new skin for Windows Media.
    3) Integrated touchscreen keyboard called DialKeys.
    4) The processor used would an Intel Celeron M ULC (I should have predicted this, but it slipped my mind).
    4) The price would be under $1000 ($800).

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