The Fundamental Flaw with Origami and Its Ilk

by James R. Stoup Mar 10, 2006

Recently Microsoft announced a new product it will be releasing called Oragami. It is an interesting piece of hardware that falls somewhere between a PDA and a laptop in both size and functionality. Unfortunately for Microsoft, products like these are practically doomed to fail outside of their niche markets. And this trend continues not because quality products aren’t produced, but rather they are solutions in search of a problem. As products, they have fundamental flaws which inevitably lead to their failure in the marketplace. Here is a brief summary of the main reasons why Oragami (and devices like it) won’t be successful.

Who is it geared to?
The biggest problem with a device like this is that everyone who might buy it, already has something that works just fine right now. Thus, for a product like this to survive, Microsoft must convince a sufficient number of consumers that the current way they are doing things isn’t very good. And the only way to make their lives better is to use the new product. This is a very hard task to accomplish because this type of device is trying to pull people in from two different consumer groups, PDA users and ultra-portable laptop users.

PDA users will most likely look at Origami and conclude that it is too big for what they need. These are users who favor BlackBerries, PDA Cell Phones, Palm Pilots and the like. They are looking for a small device that will organize their life and fit in their pocket. This Origami device should easily do the former, but its dimensions prevent it from realizing the latter. So, all but the most diehard of PDA junkies won’t be interested in Origami.

Having failed in the PDA market, an enterprising company will turn to another promising market, laptop users. Sadly Microsoft (or any another company) won’t have much more luck here than it did with the PDA crowd, but that won’t prevent a valiant attempt from being made. What argument can possibly be made that will convince someone who already owns a small laptop or a tablet PC to give Origami a try? What can it do that a standard laptop can’t? Yes it is smaller, but also much harder to use due to a small screen, cramped keyboard and tiny controls.

Dedicated Devices vs Mutli-Use Systems
Where are tablets most popular? In industries that need a dedicated device that performs a small set of functions very well. Nurses, deliverymen, inventory control clerks, Firemen (they use them in the trucks for maps and reports). Other professionals in similar industries can always find a use for a moderately cheap, fairly durable tablet PC. These types of users will gladly buy a device like this . . . FOR THEIR JOB. But when quiting time rolls around they get dropped on the desk as everyone heads home. Meaning, they don’t use these products at the office and then go out and order one for home too. They have no need for one at home, only in their work environment. Thus these users are a profitable niche market, but one that is incapable of driving any explosive growth on the consumer side.

Why? Because the current group of dedicated devices has the market locked up pretty tight already. Consumers have no reason to go out and spend $1,000 on Origami when the same functionality can be had in 3 or 4 cheaper products.

Need to play music? Get an iPod, $100
Need to organizes your life? Get a PDA, $100
Need to play movies? Get a portable DVD player, $100
Need to make phone calls? Get a cell phone, $50

$350 – 4 devices vs $1,000 – 1 device

Consumers will look at this and realize that if they really wanted to scrap most of their dedicated devices, then they are much better off spending an extra hundred dollars or so and getting a decent laptop. It will have a bigger screen, bigger harddrive, more RAM, a keyboard and trackpad, DVD drive, lots of ports and will be easier to use than Origami. It might be heavier, but how many of us are really going to care about a few extra pounds when there is so much else going for the laptop?

This is the most difficult problem, by far, that must be overcome before adoption of Origami (or any other such product) can really take off. And unfortunately for Microsoft (and in fact most other companies) they will never be able to beat this one. Not because they don’t have the programmers to write the code or the resources to make the product (s), but rather, they lack someone who will put “ease of use” above everything else. Someone who will focus on style before features. That someone is not Bill Gates.

Origami (or Apple’s fabled ‘SuperPod’ ) will ultimately be faced with the same question. Should the device run a specialized OS (think Palm Pilot or iPod) or an actual operating system (Windows CE, OS X kitty cat)? This is a crucial choice because if the device is to complex then operating it will be too much of a hassle and no one will use it. Make it too simple and you will never be able to convince people to spend $$$ on a glorified PDA. A balance must be struck, but where? What is more important, funcitonality or ease of use? If Microsoft does this I see it as a laptop that is just really hard to use. If Apple does it, I see it as a much simpler portable media device. Where Origami will have a keyboard, Apple will have a scroll wheel. Origami can be used with one hand, a device from Apple can be operated with one finger. And yet, I still don’t know what the point would be.

If Apple produced this product tomorrow it might succeed. Notice I said might. If a product such as Origami came from Apple it would definitely look cool. And it would be easy to use. It would integrate tightly with all of Apple’s other products. . . but even with all of that going for it, I am not sure we are really ready for such a device. What will we do with it? Seriously, at the end of the day what makes this product special enough for you to spend almost a thousand dollars on it? Do you really need your media portable that bad?

Even if it was as easy to use as the iPod, what would be the main selling point? It plays movies? I don’t think the demand is there yet. Wireless internet? Get a laptop. Music? Pictures? Games? Maybe what you really need is a PSP.

This alone should be the biggest indicator that the market isn’t ready for something like this. If you look at things fairly and are struck by the fact that even Apple might not be able to pull this one off, well, at that point it is time to reconsider what it is exactly Microsoft hopes to accomplish.

But maybe I am wrong. Maybe the demand is there. Maybe Origami will be everything Microsoft hopes it will be. Maybe people will use it to listen to music, watch movies, organize their lives, read books, play games and maybe it will become a sensation on par with the iPod.

Maybe. .  .

But I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.


  • Uhh. James, you make a respectable effort here to lay out your arguments, and they all have some truth to them. The problem I have though, not only here but in most of the Origami/UMPC opinion pieces is the bordering on offensive lack of imagination.

    I don’t see why UMPCs should be geared at people who already have small portable devices. What about people who have a powerful desktop, but want something very portable on the go? Something that will autosync with their desktop upon return so they have a seamless flow of content? Something that will outperform PDAs, but will go to & be operable in environments that forbid notebooks. Also, nobody seems to be thinking about the education market. You can write on these things. You can also write out formulas & enter graphics. You can hold them with one hand while up on a ladder in the library & still be able to read the screen. You can read on them in natural & comfortable reading positions. A single one could probably hold more books than you would ever read, let alone want to carry in your backpack on paper. They make for great home-automation remotes. This form-factor is very, very versatile. In fact it is the notebook that is the worse solution in most cases. People have just gotten used to using a device that is basically not ergonomic for any task that does not involve excessive use of a keyboard.

    You are very right about the interface problems. Pen/Gesture-based devices need a different workspace metaphor than desktops. If you just shrink a desktop, you will fail. It seems as though M$ is at least trying to make a decent effort here. The true & obvious problem with the devices presented to us these days is that they are slow, ugly bricks with little battery-life. Embarrassing.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Mar 10, 2006 Posts: 371
  • The last two weeks have been a very interesting period in the history of gadgets.  Both Apple and Microsoft have faced the ire of hyped prosumers in the face of products that have come in “less than analysts expectations.”  I think we are witnessing the birth of an American Otaku culture where prosumers and not producers decided the success of product launches.  I could go on but you can check out my journal entry at if you are interested.

    Merchantprince had this to say on Mar 10, 2006 Posts: 2
  • Your points are pretty much right on as far as I am concerned.  I blogged on this earlier this week as well:

    thomashawk had this to say on Mar 10, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Bad Beaver, thank you for those comments - I had not thought of a single reason to use the Origami until I read them. However, now that I think of it, this is PERFECT for the education market. You can take notes and perhaps even type essays. The size is right for younger folks, and maybe with time the price will be right too. The other things you mentioned, like rugged outdoor use and ebook reading, are very insightful as well.

    I think the problem is that NONE of the Origami videos alluded to these things. Instead, they focused on artsy people, some woman on a lawn chair, and a gamer. I hate to blame Microsoft for my own lack of insight, but they didn’t exactly encourage me to see the possibilities.

    I assume the iPod video will not be similar to this, but I do hope Apple releases a product like it. The education market is key to them, and I don’t think they can afford to lose it.

    Oskar had this to say on Mar 11, 2006 Posts: 86
  • Nah.. Apple will do something unexpected.
    Personally I’m thinking a low end (4-6”) tablet more expensive than best iPod) and a high end (8-10”) tablet (less expensive than an iBook). The high end runs OSX, the low end runs the iPod OS. Full data replication when you get home.

    ie. A single product which is both a tablet version of an iPod, and a tablet version of an iBook/MacBook. (the iPad and MacPad)

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Mar 12, 2006 Posts: 228
  • There are a number of items in this article that make it patently absurd and is obviously more Microsoft bashing than well reasoned.  If Microsoft made it then it must stink, if Apple made it then it would be cool.  You say it has a lousy interface without mentioning how it works or citing videos demonstrating the user interface.  The “facts” listed in the article are heavily biased to argue against the device instead of giving fair treatment, for example:

    You price an iPod at $100, I paid $300 for mine.  You price a PDA at $100, I paid $600 for mine.

    I read books, watch recorded TV shows and movies, use a couple simple but essential spread sheets, play a couple simple but addictive games on my PocketPC type PDA.  I just love the thing but there is one wish:  a larger screen.

    The UMPC appears to be aimed at someone who wants a media player on the go—it will function well in playing videos easily recorded off TV or ripped from your DVD collection, at a very nice size for personal viewing.  It is aimed at those needing an e-book reader, and the form factor quite honestly is ideal for that and there are some excellent programs such as uBook to help fit this bill.  It is aimed at someone who wants some of their favorite games that don’t require supercharged systems to have with them, say, on a trip.  You know what?  That’s a pretty nice sized screen for GPS, and that is one of its intended uses.  Etc.

    I’m a Mac devotee.  I don’t like Microsoft.  But as someone who has tasted the high-end uses of PDAs I can see many many good things about the new UMPCs and very few drawbacks.  Taking into consideration the utility of the device and its portability—a “man bag” might be in order but I already carry one—and compare the price to devices that attempt and fall short of similar functionality then you have a very respectable product.

    It has full-blown XP with a touch screen interface.  It is a multimedia playing workhorse.  With a foldable keyboard you can have an excellent portable wordprocessor.  Not the best game machine but far from the worst as well.

    It is not a question of whether the UMPC is right for a great many people but rather a question of whether they can be brought to realize it.  For a great many—maybe even the majority—it is quite honestly all the computer they will ever need and more—and it’s damned easy to take with you to your friend’s house.  I just hope Apple answers this soon as Microsoft beat them to the punch with this one.

    Daddio had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 1
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