Origami, a New Hardware Twist for Microsoft?

A teaser Web site for The Origami Project has created the biggest buzz for Microsoft since the launch of the Xbox and perhaps even Windows 95.

Gadget lovers hope Redmond may come up with a consumer device that matches Apple’s coolness with Microsoft functionality. Microsoft hopes the coolness will rub off on its new operating system, Windows Vista.

“This is part and parcel of an effort on Microsoft’s part to make the launch of Vista really interesting,” said Roger Kay, principal of research firm Endpoint Technologies.

The Origami device isn’t dependent on the Vista operating system, he said. But its release in the Vista timeframe — that is, Microsoft hopes, in time for the 2006 holiday shopping season — could jazz up Microsoft’s story.

“If you just deliver a new operating system, that’s not very interesting,” said Kay, who was briefed on Origami under NDA. After all, most of the new features are under the hood. “In order to get the necessary jazz, there needs to be other stuff. If partners come out with new form factors, services and applications, they can claim that computing is new and different, and create more buzz.”

As previously reported by internetnews.com, Microsoft has considered releasing its own consumer multimedia device. With the shift of its digital media software division and the MSN Music service to the Entertainment & Devices division, it seemed that Redmond was massing its forces for a foray against the immensely successful iPod.

Blogger Kevin Tofel of Kevin 2.0 uncovered what seemed to be a Flash promotion for the device on the Web site of marketing firm Digital Kitchen.

The promo is no longer on the Digital Kitchen site, but in comments on the Kevin 2.0 blog, those who saw it noticed a tablet form factor with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities, MP3 and video playback. A spokesman for Digital Kitchen referred all queries to Microsoft, but said that the Flash movie was an old piece of the agency’s work.

Microsoft evidently is working with an OEM on the device.

In an emailed statement, a Microsoft spokeswoman said, “Origami is a concept we’ve been working on with partners. We are excited to share more details about the evolution of the Origami concept with you in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.”

Ryan Block of the Engadget blog posted screen shots of the device. He pointed out that photos show both a touch screen and keyboard, leading him to speculate about what operating system the device might use.

“Because the last time we checked, their Portable Media Center OS didn’t have (known) support for touch screen and keyboard input,” he wrote. “So is this some new portable OS platform running on CE.net? Or perhaps it’s just a fat little Pocket PC device with some media software? Or something totally different — could Microsoft beat Apple to the punch with the first serious touch screen portable media device? Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that ultramobile lifestyle PC Microsoft was talking about recently.”

Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin said that Origami didn’t appear to be a portable Xbox, something that’s been rumored to be in the works. “Microsoft’s business model is not to create branded hardware,” he said. “They’re a software company. Normally, when they put these kinds of devices together, they’re reference designs.”

He said Microsoft should stick to that strategy, so as not to irk its hardware partners.

Gartner analyst Todd Kort echoed that opinion. “It would likely set off a lot of warning signals with Microsoft’s CE [licensees] if they were to enter the handheld development space,” he said.

Although Microsoft has been hyping digital entertainment devices for years, Kort said it hasn’t given OEMs enough freedom to allow them to create exciting devices.

“They’ve been pretty strict with the hardware requirements associated with their operating system,” Kort said. “I think Microsoft needs to open up a little more if they hope to create devices that have a little more coolness to them.”

He said Palm’s Treo 700w was the first time Microsoft made concessions. The 700w smartphone began shipping in January; it’s the first from PDA pioneer Palm to run on Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platform, and not the Palm operating system.

Microsoft gave Palm some freedom in modifying parts of the user interface and allowed the company to add additional software that was tightly integrated with the operating system, he said.

“There needs to be more of a balance between the needs of Microsoft and the needs of licensees to distinguish themselves,” Kort said. “Up until the Treo, Microsoft wasn’t allowing much leeway.”

Many bloggers report that the device would be released on March 2. The Origami preview Web site has two links that are not yet live, for “week 2” and “week 3,” along with the message, “Learn more on 3.2.06.”

It’s likely the tease will continue – at least until March 2.

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