Antelopes Assault on Battery Life

What wireless does to the PC is simple: It makes battery life all-important. Could this be the key to putting Linux on the desktop?

On Nov. 7, the world will see a new portable PC sold through the IBM brand. Its a computer designed without a display, without a keyboard, without a mouse and even without wireless—all in the interest of building a Windows XP machine that can run for a whole day off a small battery.

The sell isnt what you might expect. The reason Antelopes development team think corporate PC users will go for their palm-sized PC is the money theyll save.

The Antelope-developed Modular Computing Core, which will be sold through the IBM Global brand around the world, aims to try to stop the move away from the PC platform, onto Palms and Pocket PCs and smartphones. The idea is that you will use just one device at home, at work and on the road.

You could say that this encapsulates Transmetas challenge both to Intel and to ARM. It wants to run Intel x86 software with less wattage; and it wants to go into portable devices with more MIPS than ARM cores can generate.

Its clear, talking to Antelope President and Co-founder Kenneth Geyer, that he really does dream of challenging the PDA with this device. Its also clear that he knows he has a long journey to go before he can—and not just because hell kick off selling the complete Antelope MCC for around $4,000 at a time when Dell is focusing on a Pocket PC for around $300. No, a far bigger challenge is to get the battery life up to 20 hours.

The reason, of course, is wireless. In a world where you dont have to plug into the mains power, you dont want to plug into anything; you want to move around freely, having access to all your data everywhere.

Like all visionaries, Geyer resists admitting that his vision is still some way out of reach. Hes trying to deal with the problem of keeping an x86-level processor clocking fast enough to run Windows. He reckons he can do it by taking Windows into the area of the market where even Microsoft hasnt tried to take it: handhelds.

"Our customers will buy this because of cost savings," Geyer told me. "To our customers, theres a real support and licensing cost associated with the need for people to have a desktop PC, a laptop PC and a PDA. There are two OS platforms with Windows and Windows CE. You need multiple software licenses, and there are severe support issues. Its worth trading off the desktop and the PDA to one piece of hardware, one OS, one licence; a warm-swappable handheld."

The module fits into a variety of shells. There would be the desktop shell for the office; the handheld shell—very noticeably bigger than a PDA, but equally, very noticeably smaller than the smallest notebook. And there might be a laptop or tablet shell, too.

"Till end of this year, were selling evaluation kits; the computer, the MCC; the ruggedized handheld, a desktop cradle, power supplies, two sets of batteries, a wireless LAN card, and carrying case, plus a keyboard (portable) and a small mouse, all for $3,970" Geyer said.

Ironically, he depends on the vision of a man who is one of the founders of Transmeta—Linus Torvalds—a vision that sees a world moving away from Windows altogether. And the point where these two visions meet is the wireless world—the world in which both desktops and mobile cellphones will run Linux, but where it is simply impossible to run Windows except on something with a big display and a big, heavy battery.

The problem is not the wireless. Traditionally, wireless sucks up power compared with what you need to run a really economical processor core, such as the typical Palm OS system like a Sony Clie. Examine the battery budget for the new Handspring Treo 600; it has a phone capable of running for four hours of speech—but if you turn the wireless off, the PDA software that drives the phone will give you a weeks worth of computer power. Handspring gives you a switch to turn the radio circuit off—not just because its going to get you thrown out of airplanes if you try to use the phone at 30,000 feet, but because it saves battery—but theres no way of turning the computer part of the beast off. It just stays there, running, or in standby, according to whether youre using it or not.

But in the Antelope MCC, a wireless unit is a trivial drain on battery power. The main problem is a big TFT display and a gigahertz processor.

What Antelope is doing, is running the processor at handheld speeds. Todays typical PDA has a 400MHz ARM chip. The MCC will detect when its running from batteries and throttle its clock back to the same frequency. And its here you see the problem; despite having a fairly substantial 21 milliamp-hour battery, theyre predicting a battery life of less than four hours—maybe less than three hours—even at that clock speed. An iPaq would run for the whole day and weigh half as much.

The vision of a truly portable data center that was also a full-power desktop keeps returning. It was one of Chuck Peddles dreams when he designed the pull-out, 30MB "personal data pac" hard disk drive for the Tandon 386 desktop in the late 80s. He even used to jog with one (and so did keen Tandon employees, eager to score points), but the market refused to buy two processors.

In those days, of course, you had to sit down to use a real computer. Todays wireless-equipped notebook wants to be free. The race, simply, is between getting a Windows portable small enough and miserly enough with its battery to be viable in the pocket, before an ARM-based Linux portable becomes powerful enough to be seen as a viable alternative on the desktop.

Guy Kewney is among Europes best-known IT writers, having covered the PC and communications businesses since the mid-1970s in print, on TV and radio, and latterly on the Web. He has regular columns for Personal Computer World, IT Week, and The Register, and is editor of www.NewsWireless.Net—and has more portable and mobile bits and pieces than anybody could carry, including his own portable Wi-Fi access point and three different cellular data cards. His objective is to be omnipresent on the Internet.