Origami and the demise of the PC

CNN published today a faint-praise indictment of Microsoft’s Origami mini-Tablet PC initiative. I agree with the gist of the review – a half-decent Japanese keitai has all the functionality and ten times the battery life. And, purpose-made devices like iPod and digital camera are still superior in the early phase of adoption of new modalities of interaction with digital content. I think this will be true of e-Reading as well, which is why I’m bullish on devices like the upcoming Sony Reader.
But I can’t help feeling that there’s a bigger story here. To me, Origami is a signal that the PC’s time is passing: the desktop and notebook form factors that we in the U.S. have been familiar with for decades now are about to give way to devices that are truly portable. 90% of what I do day in and day out on a PC – including writing this post – could be done with a Blackberry, a keitai, or an Origami Tablet. That percentage would be higher if I were a typical consumer, rather than a geeky IT dude. Give Moore’s Law and Taiwanese/Chinese HW manufacturers another year or two and the price and battery life that cause CNN to slam Origami will be history. Or, thanks to embedded Linux, OpenOffice, and open email systems there are devices now that have the price and battery life issues fixed. Another answer would be a thumb drive that I lets me take my personal OS and data files to any computer but I tend to believe that the convergence of this with the phone is more compelling: one device in my pocket, always-on, always-connected.
Already in Japan and Korea the PC is viewed as only the “old people and salaryman’s computing device”. Down the street at Cafe Zoka the students all have notebook PCs open and are madly IM’ing and MySpace’ing. But in Tokyo and Seoul it’s another story. The mobile phone is the bread and butter computing platform and the PC is the occasional gadget.

2 Responses to Origami and the demise of the PC

  1. tcs says:

    Hey if all you do is write and post to blogs, you may be able to ditch a pc.
    Have you actually tried typing more than a few sentences on any of the current devices? Ever heard of Blackberry thumb? Carpal tunnels little brother, ya know.
    I have been wanting something like this for a long time, but wont bother with a tablet pc, because of the rate at which these things are outdated. It truly needs to be the IPod of pc’s. All the critical elements of mobile utility, with minimal interface.

  2. Josh Carter says:

    The portable world is fascinating, especially now that the processor power of embedded computers rivals the desktops of just a couple years ago. But the mistake companies make is assuming: “since we *can* make a tablet that runs a desktop OS, we *should* make a tablet that runs a desktop OS.”
    The way people use portable devices is completely different than how they use a desktop. The purpose is different: nobody’s going to grab a PDA or tablet to do word processing for hours at a time. The UI needs to be different: quick access (hard buttons where possible), minimal typing, large targets on the touch screen. It’s not hard to see why there are so many special-purpose devices (phones, GPS, etc.) whose functions *could* be done by a PDA or tablet, but people prefer the specialized device instead.
    I worked for five years on early PDA technology that was totally geared to mobile use and communications (http://multipart-mixed.com/magiccap/devices.html), and while we missed the boat on some important points, it’s interesting that the current-day tablets — some size and form-factor as our Magic Cap tablets — haven’t learned that mobile devices are a different animal. People don’t want a desktop UI in portable form factor, they want a device that was built especially for mobile use. If you’re selling it as a telephony device, it had better be just as easy to use as a cell phone. If you’re selling it as a book reader, it had better have a screen that rivals paper.
    Now, I’m not saying that you can’t repurpose an OS that started life on the desktop. Linux is used in all kinds of embedded applications (including some I’ve built), but with most embedded uses of Linux you’d never know it’s running under the covers — the UI is totally overhauled for the specific purpose of the device. The mistake Microsoft keeps making is embedding Windows but still making it look like Windows.
    Bill, great post as always. Speaking of purpose-built devices, I can’t wait to see a Sony Reader or iRex iLiad. I’ve got all these books in PDF, and no good way to read them…