Microsoft's Origami UMPC: What were they thinking?


Indianapolis (IN) - "What am I?" asked the little translucent caption, as it floated innocently above the landscape, the mountainside, the beach, and the park, merrily rejoicing in its possibility-filled anonymity. Play a game with me, fill in the blanks, conjure me into what you want me to be. Okay, we reasoned with ourselves, we know it's really going to be Windows - it is, after all, Microsoft asking the question - but what is this thing, really, we asked? Could this be the framework for a fun and useful device that will tell us where we are, keep in touch with the office and our family, gather the news from all over the world, and play the music we want wherever we happen to be? This could be something.

This "something," as various somethings from Microsoft turn out to be, is another way to cut, slice, and dice Windows into a smaller form factor. Okay, we thought, so this could be a nice platform for running Office applications while you're on the go. Well, no, not really - you could run Office on this little device, but without a keyboard and with an interlaced screen, that's going to be a challenge. Okay, then, so it's a portable media device, that enables users to play all kinds of content from local storage and the Internet. So there has to be connectivity. A-a-ah, not exactly. There could be connectivity, in a sense, provided someone else with the infrastructure to do it wanted to step up to the plate and provide it. Now, if you have a cell phone with Bluetooth, you could conceivably wangle something on your own.

Hmm...So not exactly what we expected. But it's a touch-sensitive screen (albeit not pressure-sensitive), so there's bound to be the same types of portability software that Microsoft makes available for touch-sensitive connectivity devices like the Palm Treo. Nope, no dice. There is a nifty little program launcher, with little glass buttons that apparently go "ding" when you touch them. Oh, but that's a feature of Vista, which is coming down the road in October or so, right about the time you have to upgrade.

While we're waiting for that, can we at least play a game or something on this thing? Maybe, if you'd like to download the SDK, and a free copy of Visual Basic Express, and come up with one.

Six days after the official announcement of the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) from Intel, and five days after its subsequent re-announcement from Microsoft, we're still left asking the same question, "What the blazes are you?" While Intel and Microsoft should be given credit for tackling the very serious issue of how to make everyday PC functionality more portable and more usable, you would think that the first iteration of what had been code-named "Origami" would have focused on form and function...or at least one of those. Pick either one. But what we have instead is something that's larger than the average pocket, that can't dial out, that doesn't have a discrete way to connect to the outside world, is somewhat expensive, and perhaps most unanticipated of all, is power-hungry. While demonstrations of UMPC devices at CeBIT in Hannover all weekend have featured the device playing movies, some observers have noted their batteries will be completely drained before the movie has finished.

Some of us liked the UMPC better when it was a merrily bouncing pixilated mass of nothingness skipping over an endless array of Corbis stock footage. In search of some sensibility, we waited until the dust (or lack thereof) settled a bit, and then sought out the advice of respected analysts known for their fairness and attention to detail. We asked them the question that remained on our minds: What were they thinking?

"Apparently they're thinking that the price and power efficiency and design possibilities around PCs have come to a point where they can reasonably create a second or third device for consumers, based on that architecture," answered Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for NPD Techworld. Such an architecture, he proposed, could "enable a wide range of relatively portable applications, including movie viewing, GPS navigation, digital camera photo storage, and perhaps with the appropriate wireless connections, things like mobile Web browsing or video conferencing, or e-mail."

With the appropriate wireless connections. It would appear that this is a problem, for now. In fairness, Rubin argued, that's not Microsoft's or Intel's problem right now - it's the wireless carriers'. "The challenge, particularly in the US," he said, "is that high-speed wireless data is still being rolled out by some carriers, and the components to create those connections are still relatively expensive. Certainly the service fees for those components are pretty expensive, and to integrate a radio would only enable manufacturers to appeal to customers who had a specific carrier." In other words, if the UMPC design team were to make a decision about wireless now, that decision would automatically exclude the design from being picked up by at least two-thirds of the available wireless carriers in North America.

"Anyone would argue, I think, that [the UMPC] concept is a great one," stated Bob O'Donnell, program vice president for clients and displays at IDC, in response to our burning question. "I think the hype that's driven this thing forward has been because that is an appealing concept to a lot of people. The issue is, first implementations are leaving a bit to be desired, particularly on the price side."

At a low price point, O'Donnell reasoned, UMPC becomes very appealing regardless of what it is, exactly. An ultimately portable device with even the promise of connectivity, at the price of an iPod, could be a sure sale. And at last, some of the infrastructure is finally in place to make such a concept feasible. "I think that concept is good, and at the right price point, it would be fine," he continued. "The problem is, when you're talking $800, $1000, now you're competing with a full-blown notebook, and that's not really what you want to do. That's the problem, but that was not the intention."

What Intel and Microsoft originally wanted to do, O'Donnell explained, was to create a new category of PC that could spark its own market segment, in-between a handheld and a notebook, using relatively inexpensive, easily mass-produced components. In the intervening period while UMPC was being developed, however, the market concept of a "notebook PC" broadened, argued NPD's Rubin. Whereas on one extreme you have larger notebooks becoming popular because of their widescreen displays and multimedia capabilities, on the other extreme, there are PCs from radical designers like OQOo, featuring clamshell keyboards and swivel screens, and also the Fujitsu LifeBook with similar features and a stunning design.

Currently, the LifeBook sells for prices starting at least $1400 and the Oqo Model 01+ from about $1500, which is well above the price point UMPC is staring at for now. "But there's a lot of versatility in that [notebook] market," argues Rubin, "and there's not a very thick line separating Origami devices from something like a Fujitsu LifeBook, which has a 9" screen and has Tablet PC functionality, where the screen can twist around [over] the keyboard. The LifeBook is a more expensive device, it's a thicker and larger device, but a lot of the usage scenarios today could be the same."

Whereas OQO and Fujitsu have optimized for size and user appeal, Rubin explained, Intel and Microsoft have optimized UMPC for volume. "So maybe the components are not quite as cutting-edge as what's being used in the OQO," he said, "but you can build a device for quite a bit less, even if it's not quite as portable." Once the price starts working its way down to that $500 "sweet spot," then with a few new applications having (hopefully) been introduced by that time, the burden of coming up with a single compelling reason for anyone to own this thing, becomes less and less of an issue, Rubin reasoned.

"To me, one of the most important things about this, is price," stated IDC's O'Donnell. "If it's under $500, it's a fancy gadget. People spend that much on iPods. So there's this sense that, at a low price point, it could be very interesting and very appealing. Think about all the free WiFi networks that are out there now that you could use this thing with, and it gives you a full browsing experience as opposed to trying to browse on a two-inch cell phone, which is a horrendously useless experience. And yet people are getting more and more used to having information access almost anywhere they are, at almost any time."

Yeah, how about that ubiquitousness of information access! Oh, that's right, that part's not ready yet. "If [UMPC] had wide-area connectivity," stated Rubin, "that would have more interest to me, because then it would be easy for me to connect to my office, check RSS feeds, or send digital photos to folks from the field...that's a fairly unique application that I really don't see being met in the marketplace right now."