What Is Microsoft's Origami?

Is Microsoft's Origami a new hand-held device poised to change the world? Could it be a new operating system made especially for a new kind of portable computer? What if it's all just hype?

When a video of a hand-held, tabletlike computer appeared on the Internet recently, bloggers, technophiles and journalists jumped at what they believed was the mysterious Origami, and rumors began to fly.

Microsoft's public relations department did little to calm the furor.

"Origami is a concept we've been working on with partners," says an unidentified Microsoft spokesperson in an e-mail. "We are excited to share more details about the evolution of the Origami concept with you in the coming weeks, so stay tuned."

With bated breath, many in the public waited for March 2, when the company was to pull back the curtain a bit to reveal a little more about the clandestine project.

But instead of a high-resolution photo, or a blowout event to reveal Origami, the company simply added another cryptic video on the project's Web site -- origamiproject.com -- that answers few questions but instead continues to raise them.

What Is Origami?

"From the new information that Microsoft released today, it's obviously some sort of mobile product that consumers can take with them, and now all the speculation lies in what kind of mobile product," says Ross Rubin, an analyst with NPD Group,

The most popular explanation of -- or speculation about -- Origami is that it's a new kind of tablet PC.

Tablet PCs are not that different from regular notebook computers, except they allow the user to interact directly with the screen.

"So far, tablet PCs haven't really taken off in the home and in the general workspace," says Gizmodo.com news editor John Biggs. "Obviously, it has applications in medical and in some other fields where you have to be able to sign things, like real estate contracts."

Biggs doubts that Microsoft would release a piece of hardware given its track record.

"It's just not their modus operandi," he says. "They do consoles [Xbox and Xbox 360], but I don't think they're going to be doing hand-helds."

Instead, Biggs believes Origami is an operating system designed to work with new kinds of third-party, hand-held PCs.

"What we discovered is that it's probably some sort of software solution based on Intel's mobile PC platform, that tiny PC that they were flaunting a couple of months ago," he says.

The tiny PC he refers to is Intel's Ultra Mobile Personal Computer -- UMPC.

Many have speculated that the hand-held computer -- about the size of a small, paperback book -- could operate using a new stripped-down version of the Windows XP operating system, called Origami.

"It's [UMPC] essentially a really low-powered PC running Windows XP. It's one size up from a PDA," explained Biggs. "It's designed to be low-powered, so it's not going to run out of batteries very quickly."

According to Rubin, the low-power requirement will mean the device will only need to be charged as regularly as, say, a cell phone, with several days' worth of standby power.

Microsoft Pulls an Apple

Aside from a lot of hype generated by the Microsoft PR machine and the so-called leaked video, why should the layman care about Origami? And do we need another portable device to add to our Batman-style utility belts?

"If this form factor takes off, and if the whole tablet idea actually gets accepted by the layman with the Batman belt, it could conceivably take the place of your BlackBerry, your laptop, your PDA and everything," says Biggs. "So it could be an all-in-one, incredible piece of hardware that everyone wants."

Biggs says the only way to make that happen is to develop a device and an operating system that is so compelling and so functional that no one can put it down.

But he points out that Microsoft's surreptitious marketing strategy resembles the methods of one of its fiercest competitors.

"I think we're seeing the first inklings of Microsoft pulling an 'Apple,'" he says. "I mean, Apple can hold a press conference and the whole world sits on edge waiting for some hi-fi box to appear out of thin air or something."

Microsoft says to check back March 9 to find out what Origami is.