Turning a Notebook into a PDA

We are beginning to see a future where the lines between the PDA and the laptop are increasingly blurred, says eWEEK.com's Rob Enderle.

In the interest of full disclosure, Intel, Transmeta and Vulcan are clients of mine.

Now, I admit that turning a $2,000 notebook into a $500 PDA sounds kind of nuts. But stay with me and Ill explain.

The problem we have with notebook computers, and this will be particularly evident with the new ultrasmall portables due soon from OQO and Vulcan Ventures, is battery life—or, more accurately, the lack of it. The OQO computer claims four hours, the Vulcan device just two.

PDAs, on the other hand, have battery life several times that of notebooks because they dont require the same level of performance, dont use hard drives, and have smaller, more energy-efficient displays. However, while the displays are getting more efficient, for now the types used in PDAs (transflective) dont work well in laptops because their performance in low-light situations is just awful.

Of course, over the last several years we have learned how to cache hard drives so they dont use as much power (the iPod is an example of this), and new processors from Transmeta and Intel operate at dramatically lower power rates when background applications can be turned off.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read a report on Intels new low-power mobile processors.

Notebooks are hampered by more than just power problems, though. Booting up a laptop to check your calendar or e-mail can take a minute or longer. Not only is that often dead time, but you may actually be holding up a customer or your boss while youre struggling to get the laptop running. And thats not only annoying, but also potentially really embarrassing, particularly if your laptop is bright red and features a Ferrari logo (not that this has ever happened to me).

Well, Phoenix Technologies, the BIOS experts, have started to market a technology that will change all of this. It is called FirstWare and it allows a notebook to boot up into a Pre-Windows environment near instantly. Within this environment you can do such PDA-type functions as e-mail, calendaring and instant messaging.

Since you arent spinning up the hard drive or running background applications, on many notebooks battery life should increase dramatically. I can also envision a mode where the system would warn you to switch modes if the battery dropped below a certain threshold, thus getting another hour or two of battery life from the system.

Additional advantages of this low-powered PDA mode: virus checking and maintenance. Since the OS doesnt boot, any viruses designed for it wont run. That lets you scan and remove them before they do damage. This pre-boot mode can be used for system maintenance as well, including things like remotely re-imaging the machine remotely through a secure management interface.

Intel had showcased some laptop designs a few years ago that anticipated this "PDA" mode. The prototypes had small displays mounted on a case, much like a cell phone with dual displays. The displays provided e-mail notification, appointment reminders and instant messages, as well as the time and date.

We are beginning to see a future where the lines between the PDA and the laptop are increasingly blurred. First it was PDAs with laptop-like capability, and now it is laptops gaining the advantages of PDAs.

These advances allow business users to reduce the number of devices they have to carry by one (typically the PDA). That lets companies reduce both initial acquisition and support cost without a substantial loss of benefits. It also means that, with the extended battery life, a laptop is more likely to be able to complete a shift, a flight, or a meeting without having to carry a power brick. That alone will be worth the price of admission. But the most important thing is that it reduces the overall complexity of technology we have around us; sometimes its nice to see the pendulum swing towards simplicity instead. Whichever benefit you like, this is clearly a step in a much needed direction.

But its not going to be an easy marriage. At this stage were all still waiting to see how the kids turn out.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.

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