by Galen Gruman

Personal Computing – Four Concept Computers

Jun 15, 2004 6 mins
Computers and Peripherals

Look around the office. What do you see? Offices filled with PCs in tower cases, or black notebooks neatly docked to their monitors. Could that change? This year, the enterprise will see two new types of PCs vie to replace the traditional desktop and notebook: the blade PC and the modular PC. Even the common PC and notebook designs are changing. Analysts, however, are betting on the evolutionary designs rather than the revolutionary ones. “Change is a four-letter word,” says Enderle Group analyst Rob Enderle. Still, designers keep trying to come up with something new to appeal to computer buyers. Here’s a preview of the main contenders.

1 Blade PCs

Lock it up in the data center. That’s the idea behind blade PCs, such as those from ClearCube. The blade systems offer centralized, secured management advantages similar to the mainframe-and-terminal systems?while providing a standard Windows environment for applications, says IDC analyst Roger Kay. Blades rely on network connections to users’ desktops to deliver screen updates and receive mouse and keyboard input. Users can log in from any location and still see “their” PC. Companies also gain greater security since the hardware and storage all live in a secured data center. But unlike thin-client PCs and the original computer terminals of the pre-PC era, blade PCs run standard Windows programs, allowing IT to preserve the existing computing environment.

It’s not all upside for blades, of course. The systems require significant network resources?often necessitating dedicated cabling and infrastructure?and increased network management, which can neutralize any hardware savings, says Kay. Thus far, security- and space-conscious financial trading floors and other financial organizations are the primary blade users. Government institutions (particularly those involved with intelligence and defense), as well as some hospitals (where employees are mobile, and the heat and noise of a PC is intolerable), are also early blade adopters, Kay says.

ClearCube pioneered the blade design, and IBM Japan is now reselling the ClearCube blades to test the market. And Hewlett-Packard has already started selling blade PCs.

2 Modular PCs

Apple Computer’s Newton made the idea of a handheld computer seem plausible?technologically succeeding Palm and Pocket PC devices. However, Newton capabilities remain considerably less than a fully enabled PC despite its improved processing power. But designers haven’t given up. Several firms are proposing the so-called modular PC, a handheld device that runs standard Windows XP and other conventional PC applications. The goal is to give mobile users the full PC experience on the go?without the inconvenience of a notebook’s weight or size. Need a standard monitor, mouse, keyboard or extra storage? No problem, just attach them via a docking station.

There are certainly still some hurdles?the lack of a real keyboard, for instance. But the success of the BlackBerry and its thumb-based data entry function gives modular PC makers hope that the minikeyboards on their devices won’t be a barrier to adoption. Analysts, however, fear that the modular PC will be too costly given the required miniaturization. Forrester analyst Simon Yates, for instance, predicts that a future generation of light, powerful tablet PCs (a sector that itself has not taken off as well as some pundits and vendors had hoped), rather than modular PCs, will dominate the market for truly portable computers.

Startups Antelope Technologies and OQO expect to ship units this year, while Tiqit has been saying for several years that its models are coming soon. Vulcan, one of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s companies, has shown a similar device called the FlipStart.

3 Integrated PCs

For years, vendors have demonstrated highly integrated PCs that save desktop space and provide a consistent environment for IT to manage. For example, network connectors and video display adapters?once separate add-in cards?have become standard motherboard components in many PCs. And PC makers have followed Apple Computer’s lead by replacing a potpourri of ports with high-speed FireWire and USB 2.0 ports that make it easier to add storage devices, digital cameras, printers and more as needed. The added benefit is that PCs no longer need extra internal drive bays. The result: “There’s a lot of air in these [traditional] boxes,” says Yates.

In response, most vendors have simply slimmed down the cases, but some also see an opportunity to add new features. HP, for example, worked with Microsoft a year ago on its Athens concept, which let the PC easily double as a teleconferencing system. This year, HP is experimenting with its Matisse 2 prototype?which includes a dedicated printer and video camera. While this concept is aimed at small-business users, it could easily be adapted for use by call center reps and salespeople.

4 Adaptable Notebooks

Perhaps the most varied computing form in the enterprise is the notebook PC. Most companies have the standard big-slab, desktop-replacement notebook for the troops and the slimmer, cooler, pricier notebooks for execs and other favored staff. Specialized devices such as tablet PCs and notebooks may also be an option for some users, though only about 450,000 tablet PCs were sold in 2003, and ultraportables of all designs account for less than 10 percent of notebook shipments, analysts say.

Both Forrester analyst Yates and IDC analyst Alan Promisel expect to see a variety of traditional clamshell notebook designs, including models weighing less than 3 pounds and some less than an inch thick that still hold two drives. But notebook transformation will be about more than thin and light, Yates says. Cheap, fat, heavy notebooks using desktop components, for instance, make a lot of sense as desktop replacements, even if they function poorly as mobile devices. He therefore foresees a return of the “luggable” as IT looks to keep costs low.

And Intel?king of the PC processor?is working on a new twist in notebook design through a series of prototypes collectively called Florence: Detach the keyboard, and it’s a tablet PC; reattach the keyboard, and it becomes a standard notebook. Florence works better as a desktop system, letting users position the monitor and keyboard separately, which can reduce neck strain and other ergonomic ailments. Furthermore, it saves IT the cost of components commonly used with corporate notebooks?docking stations, extra monitors, keyboards and mice. A built-in camera and audio system lets it handle teleconferencing, and fingerprint identification helps to increase security.