The technology icon stands before a crowd, holding in his hands a prototype that embodies his vision for the future of computing. It’s a touch-screen tablet that is thinner than a magazine, has all-day battery life, and sells for less than $800.
But the icon wasn’t Steve Jobs and the tablet wasn’t the iPad. It was Bill Gates, speaking in 2005 to a crowd of Windows hardware makers in Seattle. The technology enabling such a device was still a few years off, Gates said, but it was time to start working toward that vision.
A year later, Microsoft detailed Project Origami, an effort to commercialize Gates’ vision by adding a touch interface on top of Windows XP. Yet, the technology still hadn’t caught up with the vision.
A few devices, like Samsung’s Q1 eventually found their way to the market, but they were a bust, offering terrible battery life and costing more than $1,000. Within a year, Microsoft and the partners had largely abandoned the effort.
Fast forward four years and the Gates tablet vision is a reality, thanks to Apple. Despite a decade spent trying to sell Windows-based tablets and the prescience to see the hardware trends that would make it possible for a device like the iPad to exist, Microsoft has thus far missed the boat.
The iPad is perhaps the best-received new consumer gadget since the game-changing iPhone. The Origami effort, meanwhile, is a footnote, just one of many in a string of failures in the mobile market. And while the PC market is still fast growing and dominated by Microsoft, the company’s failures in the mobile market threaten Windows’ long-term future.
As Microsoft continues to struggle with new computing form factors such as smartphones and tablets, it might benefit from taking a look back at Origami. How exactly did Microsoft have such a keen grasp on the future and still let opportunity slip through its fingers?