Origami? We'll fold

The good thing about first impressions is that they save so much time

On our first encounter with prototypes of Intel's ultramobile PC last year, we described it as 'the form factor flop of the decade'. As a judgement made after five minutes of playing with unfinished hardware, that's arguably harsh. It was certainly flip.

But it wasn't wrong. In the six months since the UMPC went from a coy demonstration in a lab to a teaser campaign to Microsoft's Origami launch to Samsung's Q1, we've seen nothing that makes us revise our opinion. Nor are we alone -- reviewer after reviewer has picked up a unit and slapped down the idea. Poor battery life, clunky interface, uninspiring performance, no mobile phone access and high cost all just underline the initial question -- what is it for?

We still don't know. Yet there are defenders of the concept, who complain that reviewers are making a mistake when they say it is less useful than a laptop and less portable than a PDA. Think of it as doing a task, they say, not in comparison to existing platforms.

OK, let's try that. What task would you like? Online access in a portable yet capable format? That's existed for ages already as various webpads: nobody uses them. Mobile multimedia? You can do that more portably and less expensively with a Sony PSP, or more flexibly and less expensively with a laptop. It's no good arguing suitability for purpose if there's nothing for which it's best suited.

Ah, say the apologists. That's just because this is the first generation. Next year's will be lighter in the hand and on the wallet, more powerful, have less battery suck and be closer to Microsoft and Intel's vision. Seeing as that vision is 'a very small tablet PC', we're happy that the current hardware is pretty representative already.

The Origami project is a classic mistake -- a technology pushed out into the market in the blithe hope that people will find uses for it. Beyond the first flush of early adopters, who'll be on to next week's thing by, well, next week, the chances of the format finding favour in profitable numbers are closer to absolute zero than the surface of Pluto. Unless someone comes up with a real use for the thing, our initial analysis stands.