Microsoft’s iTunes Killer: Origami

by Chris Seibold Mar 16, 2006

Most are familiar with the marketing story behind Origami: a cryptic website, rumors and mass internet speculation on just what, and how cool, the thing would be. The website was a nice touch, the rumors and rampant speculation were reminiscent of Apple’s marketing ploys. The thing is, as the recent introduction of the iStealfromU.. uh, iPod sleeve illustrates, if you’re going to rely on pundits and bloggers to whip up serious interest in your product you had better come out with something stunning. And, like the iPod Hi-Fi, Origami turned out to be less than impressive.

For those unaware, what Origami turned out to be was an unappealing hybrid of sub-notebook and a tablet PC. Naturally, people went apocalyptic when the thing was revealed; they expected something more than a form factor. As disappointed as people were, they were missing the larger picture. Origami isn’t one product, but a set of guidelines. Guidelines for designing an ultra mobile PC running Windows (XP for now).

At this point, it is necessary to ignore the clunky form factor of the first machines, eschew the idea that no one really wants to use a touch screen to run Windows, and forget about such mundane things as battery life. All these objections will be, Intel and others assure people, made moot by future releases. The thing to remember is that the UMPC is a long-term left hook aimed squarely at the chin of the iTunes Music store.

Intelligent readers (and Apple Matters only has intelligent readers) will ask themselves at this point why would Microsoft go after iTunes and not the more profitable iPod? An excellent question. Microsoft and its hardware partners have learned the hard way that taking on the iPod directly is next to impossible. If you build a better spec’d player it isn’t as intuitive. If you build a cheaper player, it isn’t as stylish. If you build a superior player in every quantifiable way consumers will simply say it won’t run iTunes. In the end, all the assaults on the iPod have come to naught. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Microsoft is not deranged.

Besides recognizing the futility of a direct assault on the iPod, Microsoft is not interested in revenue from the hardware (though, it should be noted, Microsoft’s hardware is pretty good). Microsoft is interested in controlling the DRM. While Apple may say that the iTunes music store exists primarily to help sell iPods that statement is a lot like a car dealer telling you that its on the lot financing service is staffed only to make your life more convenient. In short, it is a claim of the most dubious nature. Microsoft sees the near future as a time dominated by digital content and paid for via the subscription model. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft wants their DRM out there protecting all the content producers and, not incidentally, generating both revenue and control for the Redmond powerhouse.

To Microsoft and partners the picture looks like this: someone will build a UMPC with music as the primary focus. The size, price and battery life will all be competitive with the iPod. Since the UMPC née Origami is running Windows that means it can also run iTunes. So you’ll have the luxury of running everyone’s go to music program while carrying a much more versatile machine. Need examples? An iPod can’t word process or send emails. An iPod can’t make phone calls using a VoIP network, an iPod can’t play anything but the lamest of games out of the box (it’s true, those games are freaking horrible), an iPod can’t wirelessly connect to Microsoft’s servers to retrieve a song you’ve decided to rent on impulse. Why wouldn’t consumers, the reasoning surely goes, choose a device that can run iTunes and do so much more?

Ambitions don’t stop there. Once people are freed from the chains of the iPod by their iTunes compatible UMPC they also escape the clutches of iTunes. Should Napster 2.0 or Rhapsody become enticing users will be able to jump to that service with out suffering the loss of their current music. The only inconvenience will be switching programs on their UMPC. Of course, that is not an inconsequential burden, but one Microsoft hopes people are willing to accept.

Predictably, every incremental bit of utility adds another layer of complexity. The trick for Microsoft will be getting people to forget that they are holding a full fledged PC and have users feel that the device’s primary purpose is what they wish it to be. Put in another fashion, Microsoft will hope that people who buy a UMPC for music playback think of it as a music player that happens to also play current games. If someone purchases a UMPC to use as a handheld gaming platform (yes, Microsoft is eyeing the PSP as well with this device) Microsoft hopes buyers see it as a powerful Gameboy that happens to double as a PDA.

Can Microsoft pull it off? Will the Origami be the tangential assault on the iPod/iTunes monopoly that finally gives Microsoft their rightful share of the digital media market? It seems like a compelling notion but consumers are very reticent to give up things when they do a single job very well (people still cling to their fax machines). On the other hand people are using camera phones in alarming numbers so tacked on convergent functionality is not always instantly rejected.

Microsoft faces a big challenge with the Origami project. The first will be positioning the device as a single purpose tool. That will be a proposition addressed by marketing wonks and the designers working for their hardware partners. Handled properly, people will opt for the extra functionality. It is a dangerous game however, the iPod is far more capable than Apple would have the average user believe but the functionality is purposely kept on the simplistic side. Microsoft can exploit this but the slightest misstep, the merest hint that a you’re really buying a hard to use PC that happens to play music, and Origami will be yet another failed attempt to take on the iPod.


  • Origami isn’t one product, but a set of guidelines. Guidelines for designing an ultra mobile PC running Windows (XP for now).

    True enough.
    But it is too little too late.

    In other words: I keep thinking about the Nintendo DS Lite…

    With just a few tweaks Nintendo has an ultra mobile device running Linux for about $150.

    Emailing, web surfing, games, open office, wireless connectivity to one’s future “G:drive.”

    It is all there… with just a few tweaks.

    If there is any good news in all this for Microsoft it is that Nintendo doesn’t really seem to understand the full possibilities of what they have wrought.

    koreyel had this to say on Mar 16, 2006 Posts: 22
  • I do think that the price point will be prohibitive. Not only will this have to change, but the ipod is targeted at people who simply want an mp3 player. It’s actually quite a small section of society that are remotely interested in using portable computers to help ethem run their lives. And a largely different one from the mp3 player market.
    For most people, a clean and simple thing like the ipod will remain by far the best and most popular solution to music.

    Benji had this to say on Mar 16, 2006 Posts: 927
  • That is because Nintendo has a tendency to keep things simple, unlike… other companies.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Mar 16, 2006 Posts: 371
  • I jumped right in and purchased a first gen iPod in the first month it was out there - all five gigs of glory with a well documented price per meg that remains the benchmark for the other end of the value for volume ratio.  Even without any of the features that have come along with the evolution of this product, I still wouldn’t trade it for an UMPC at par. 


    1. Many factors already define what I need to bring with me when I am on the go.  Work issued PC, PDA, Mobile.  Last thing I need is a big brick that can do all the things that I can already do with then stuff I already have to bring with me.  Yeah, yeah, it could replace all of these things - I will keep that in mind when I run the show.

    2. I love having only 5 gigs.  It forces me to come up with creative new smart playlists that make me listen to my music library in ways I would never come up with if I looked at it.

    3. The darn thing just will not give up.  What can I say when I expect consumer electronics to last only three years?  Would I buy another iPod - well, yes - will this thing just die already so I can?  I guess we will have to press on regardless and see how long it goes.

    4. Finally - this is not like saying that I am a Republican because just I so deeply want to be a part of a winning team.  This is saying that I would rather have an iPod because I know better than believing that this is not about the “oil”.

    Wallyworld had this to say on Mar 17, 2006 Posts: 1
  • I don’t fully agree with the main argument of this article.  The UMPC will never compete directly against smaller, more specialized personal electronic devices because sometimes you need a smaller, more specialized device.  It doesn’t matter how advanced the UMPC is going to get in this respect.  The size of the UMPC will always be determined by the desired amount of visual information needed to run the OS and benefit from all the functionality in the UMPC.  You can always design a higher quality, smaller, and more user friendly device with a longer battery life if it’s for a specialized function: e.g., the cell phone.  Which is I think more to the point: consumers are always going to want smaller devices like audio players that will work well with their computer(s) of choice.  And for multimedia content, the UMPC has a good chance, IMO, of becoming that computer of choice.

    I agree that the UMPC helps Microsoft put their DRM out there on a portable device, and helps level the field between Apple’s and MS’s DRM.  But MS can’t “control” the software that runs on Windows, including DRM files.  There is Windows software that can read every available codec and convert files freely from one to another.  You can’t really “protect” music, you can only make it inconvenient to make a 1:1 copy of the digital information.  Choosing a DRM scheme is like choosing the particular inconvenience that you’re going to suffer from or that impacts you and your personal habits the least.

    Where I see the UMPC digging into iTunes has to do with the fact that the iPod requires content synchronization with one PC through iTunes.  So, you’re required to have at least two copies of your digital media: one on the PC, one on the iPod.  This is a part of the protection scheme worked out between Jobs and recording companies.  It’s an added obstacle—in other words, a design flaw.  It was a well chosen design flaw for the time, but of course it was eventually going to be a liability as technology, not Microsoft but technology in general, advances, in that it’s just a plain old inefficient use of a limited resource: hard drive capacity.  HD capacity becomes more and more of a limited resource by mobilizing the PC: laptops included, but especially with the UMPC.

    If you get a UMPC with 60GB 1.8” HD storage and try to pair it with a 60GB iPod, you’ll see what I’m talking about.  You want that arrangement to load new content on the iPod on the go, but it’s just not feasible.  Intead, the UMPC favors files that can be played off of a mass storage device type of media player.  A mass storage type of media player essentially acts as an external hard drive with a battery, and can also work on its own with its own built in functionality. 

    The fact is that you don’t need any “DRM files” at all to be affected by this difference between MS and Apple’s choices in their DRM models.  If you rip your own music or video files, the problem with the UMPC/iPod/iTunes combination is still there.  In general, our rights to our digital media purchases are being more aggressively managed: “DRM”.  Unlike the iPod which abides by Apple’s DRM model, a mass storage device media player allows you to keep a complete archive at home (uncompressed on your NAS) and a smaller archive on your UMPC and your PMP, depending on where you want your media files at what quality for what purpose, with complete flexibility in managing hard drive usage.  So mass storage PMPs will always work better with a UMPC than a large capacity iPod.  Period.  Apple can make a tablet mac tomorrow and this would still be true.

    In general, I think the UMPC has little to do with Apple as such.  I think this is Bill Gates’s brainchild that he has been working on for years and will keep working on until it happens.  He can do this, because he’s a multi maga billionaire running a huge successful company that makes Windows, Office, and some other stuff.  Bill Gates won’t rest until everyone is walking around with a networked PC.  Sure that PC will run Windows, but it will also run Linux, and any compatible software that Apple wants to produce to support any device it creates.  Furthermore, any UMPC made by MS, Apple, or Dell will run bit torrent, youtube, real player, etc.

    The fight for control of DRM between MS and Apple is just kind of an ironic topic, IMO, from the standpoint of consumers of multimedia content (i.e., most of us).  The biggest contributor to DRM “features” is the RIAA.  The RIAA would love to have more control over consumer behavior around media content playback, because they think they don’t have enough.  If MS’s or Apple’s versions of DRM actually became more popular and profitable because of the UMPC with built in wifi and no optical drive, the RIAA would be thrilled beyond belief and start releasing “online only” “albums” filled with “crap”.  Both MS and Apple are trying to offer convenience to the consumer despite the barely functional, intermittently erratic RIAA mentality.  But for the consumer to care which version of DRM is winning without thinking about the functional loss of privilege is not really at all to the advantage of the consumer.

    The smart consumer will minimize DRM use to only certain purposes anyway; continue to buy CDs and support that format; and support Fair Use with their wallets, IMO.  The hi-def video market represents too much data to do anything about, and it’s not in the downloadable content arena.  But in relation to music, the consumer has a huge impact on how music is and will be distributed now and in the future… for real, I mean.  And it doesn’t matter which OS we’re running.

    If you want to do something like have a single track for the gym, make a mix for a party or a friend, or expose yourself to lots of music for a couple months at a time, there are tons of ways to do that with and without DRM that are all great for the consumer.  There are numerous services available that consumers will pay for to have that function. 

    But, if you really like an artist, I think it makes sense to reward yourself and the artist by buying a new CD.  That CD is a !!CD-quality!! archive that you can backup and listen to at higher quality, where you want, and how you want it. 

    If we are concerned about control of purchased media content, we should be fighting for control of CD quality audio and NTSC/PAL/DVD quality video.  And throw in 5.1 audio too.  These are computationally workable on existing computers,  distributed in a user friendly format that is resistant to manipulation, and perfectly suitable to portable devices.  The fight for anything more than that is neither feasible nor necessary, IMO.  HDTV resolution on a 7” handheld device with 7.1 digital audio is not something we can realistically be concerned about.  But the moment DRM audio and video overwhelm CD and DVD formats in profitability, the battle for control is lost.

    cobalt had this to say on Mar 18, 2006 Posts: 1
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