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Monday, March 13, 2006 - Page updated at 01:00 PM

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Information in this story, originally published March 9, 2006, was corrected March 9, 2006. A previous version of this story misidentified the location of the CeBit trade show, where Microsoft unveiled its Ultra Mobile PC. It took place in Hanover, Germany.

Microsoft's handheld computer, Origami, debuts

Seattle Times technology reporter

Amid the biggest hype since it launched the Xbox 360 in November, Microsoft today is unveiling its "Origami Project," a new category of handheld computer that could become the next must-have digital device.

But there's a risk people will be turned off by the first versions, which are bigger and more expensive than expected and run only for about three hours on a single battery charge. Samsung is set to sell the first models in the U.S. next month for $599 to $1,000, depending on features included.

Origami Project was the code-name for a new category of PC that Microsoft and Intel have been developing for more than a year. They hope the devices will become small and cheap enough that most PC users will buy one to supplement their home and office machines, staying constantly connected via wireless networks.

Expectations soared after Microsoft started a cryptic online marketing campaign three weeks ago to build buzz for today's announcement at the CeBit trade show in Hanover, Germany.

Wednesday, a spokeswoman said the reaction surprised Microsoft. She cautioned that the product is still evolving.

"This is the first generation of a long string of innovations we intend to bring to small form factors that run full Windows," said Mika Krammer, director of Windows mobility marketing. "We are not trying to position this Ultra Mobile PC at this time to be all things to all people, so every man, woman and child should own one of these in the next three months."

The Samsung has a 7-inch diameter screen, runs Windows XP Tablet Edition and weighs under 2 pounds. Some models will have global positioning systems and wide-area networking features. Storage capacity will range from 30 to 60 gigabytes.

Samsung's model comes with a program that can display TV broadcasts transmitted wirelessly if users have a Slingbox, a separate device that costs around $200, attached to their home set.

Chinese PC maker Founder is preparing to sell a version there, and Asus Computer is expected to sell another version soon in the U.S. and Europe.

Among the device's software advances are touch-screen capabilities and a digital version of the Sudoku numbers puzzle.

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Future versions will be based on Windows Vista, the new Microsoft operating system coming later this year, and a new chip set with all-day battery life that Intel is to deliver in 2007 and 2008.

Some of the devices with XP will be able to upgrade to Vista.

Analysts said the concept is intriguing but still early.

If the devices cost $1,000, people may buy a laptop instead, so Microsoft, Intel and PC makers have to keep prices around $500, said Bob O'Donnell, vice president of client research at IDC.

"If in one device I can get the equivalent of a GPS and a Web terminal and e-mail machine and media playback device, it starts to become a little more interesting," he said.

There's also a risk the first versions will be underwhelming, O'Donnell said. "The reason it's gotten so much buzz and so much press is the vision is very appealing; there's no question about that," he said. "It's a question of execution and delivering on that promise."

The PC industry has tried with mixed success to develop handheld computers. It's also facing new competitors, such as phone company Nokia's 770 Internet tablet that went on sale in fall for under $400.

Because people have different tastes, one device is unlikely to dominate, said Allen Nogee, an In-Stat/MDR analyst who carries a Nokia 770.

"That's the thing we see with cellphones; people are expecting one model or form factor of cellphone to fit everyone," he said. "It's never going to happen."

Microsoft's Krammer said there's an opportunity for the PC industry to build different versions of the Ultra Mobile PC for certain types of users, such as travelers wanting a GPS version loaded with hotel, restaurant and mapping information.

To start, the most likely buyer is a technology enthusiast.

"Do we expect and hope that everyone's sister and grandmother will own one?" Krammer said. "Not in the near term, but that is certainly an aspirational goal in the years to come."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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