Microsoft: Vistagami Rising

Despite the harsh criticism received over its Origami, the software outfit is introducing another supersmall computer

This spring, Microsoft attracted huge buzz for the Origami prior to its launch, but as details emerged and the products hit the market, they were roundly criticized as overpriced and underpowered.

Next month, at CES, Microsoft will be back with another round of the tiny computers. The latest tablets, code-named Vistagami because of their Windows Vista support, also will come in a wider range of looks, including some models with keyboards. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is expected to mention some of the new devices in his CES keynote as part of a broader discussion of the new types of computers that will be enabled with Vista, including new all-in-one PCs and other esoteric designs.

But it's unclear whether the new crop of devices will do that much to address the two biggest criticisms of the category: price and battery life.

"Certainly there is progress still to be made in the category," said Mika Krammer, a director in Microsoft's Windows product marketing unit.

Intel has a new platform, McCaslin, that aims to offer more energy-efficient chips, though it is not expected until around mid-year. Taiwanese chipmaker Via Technologies has also exerted a lot of effort in this area.

"Right now we have the lowest power and also the smallest form factor," said Richard Brown, Via's VP of corporate marketing. Brown noted that by switching to its chips, Samsung was able to achieve five hours of battery life on its Q1B tablet, double the life on the original, Intel-based Q1.

Even with some improvements over the course of 2006, the first Origami devices have had very limited appeal.

"They haven't done very well," said IDC analyst Richard Shim. Some of the ultramobile PCs even found their way onto a list of biggest tech disappointments of 2006.

Shim pointed out that the best-selling of the super-tiny devices isn't even an Origami. Sony's UX series devices cost even more than the minitablets and sports a built-in keyboard and built-in wireless. "They figured the audience they are going for," Shim said. "They built a device that audience wanted and they set it at a price point that audience wouldn't mind paying for."

Making Windows more manageable

The first devices are likely to start shipping when Vista goes on sale at the end of the month. For its part, Microsoft plans at CES to show off the updated Origami software it has for Vista. The "touch pack," as the software is known, aims to make Windows more manageable on a device that typically has a screen smaller than 7 inches. Among the additions for Vista is a customized version of the operating system's built-in Windows Photo Gallery that's easy to navigate through touch.

While much of the focus remains on touch-screen abilities, Microsoft is also making way for keyboards, noting that they have become increasingly popular even on smaller devices, such as cell phones.

"There's a lot of emphasis on slide-out keyboards for the newer (devices) you will see at launch," Krammer said.

Not all of the minitablet excitement will be focused on Vista, however.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.