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The PC Changes Shape

Is it a desktop, a laptop, or an information appliance? More important is whether it makes you more productive.

Except for more horsepower, PCs have changed very little in the past several years. But with vendors mired in a flat market and looking for the next bells and whistles that might spur sales, PC makers and component suppliers are set to roll out machines featuring new technologies designed to enhance productivity in and out of the office.

As a result of this effort, boxy desktops could soon vanish from the PC landscape as "information appliances" take hold and blur the line between desktop and notebook computers. Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM are working on prototype models that feature Transformer-like designs that let computers expand into desktops in the office while assuming a more mobile shape for portable use. Dell, for example, is expected to ship a mobile PC that features a fold-out keyboard and an LCD screen that can be raised to eye level when in use as a desktop.

Then there's the Tablet PC--the booklike computing device that can receive input from a pen or even a user's voice and that runs a version of Windows XP Professional with specific enhancements for its compact form. Microsoft provided the specs, and next month a number of hardware makers, including Acer, HP, and Toshiba, will begin selling the systems.

IT executives hope the Tablet PC will facilitate new levels of collaboration within their organizations. Tony Scott, chief technology officer for information systems and services at General Motors Corp., says the automaker has already made significant progress toward real-time collaboration but is counting on the Tablet PC to help it take the next step. By digitizing its design process during the past four years, the company has reduced vehicle development time from 48 months to 18. To slash even more time from the process, Scott says, GM needs tools that let workers interact and share documents electronically, even when they're walking around the factory floor or attending a board meeting. "When people can look at things simultaneously, mark them up, and do that in an orderly fashion, it will be a real benefit in terms of time savings," he says. With the Tablet PC, "we've seen some of Microsoft's thinking start to emerge in terms of voice recognition and document collaboration. They're on the right track."

The Tablet PC is among the many forthcoming mobile-computing devices that will feature built-in support for 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless networks. One company already testing that capability on a Tablet PC prototype is Ameranth Wireless Inc., which makes software for restaurants and hospitals. The company may use the Tablet PC as part of its Host Alert product for restaurants, which will let wait staff, kitchen workers, and hosts place orders wirelessly to speed up service. "It's getting to the point where wireless is becoming a mature technology that delivers measurable business value," Ameranth CEO Randy Stratford says.

With little growth expected in the desktop market for the foreseeable future, Intel has its sights on the mobile and wireless markets. The chipmaker recently demonstrated Banias, a notebook processor set for debut in the first quarter of next year. Banias-powered notebooks feature built-in support for 802.11b wireless technology and are designed to provide longer battery life. Banias chips will run at clock speeds of 1.4 GHz, 1.5 GHz, and 1.6 GHz. Already, notebook vendors are counting on the chip to spark sales. "Banias is going to be huge for us," predicts Anthony Bonadero, director of product marketing at Dell.

Intel is also developing technology that will allow a single chip to process digital and analog signals, raising the possibility of creating a single processor to power voice, data, and networking functions within mobile devices. Intel execs say the chip's mixed-signal circuitry could make mobile devices considerably less expensive because they would require fewer processors. The technology will also "bring the benefits of Moore's Law to communications silicon," says Sean Maloney, VP and general manager at Intel's communications group. Moore's Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, posits that computer processing power doubles every 18 months. The company says it expects to introduce the chips next year.

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