Elgan: While Windows sleeps

Dell, Intel give users what they want: to turn Windows off

Dell, Intel and their partners announced this week new technologies that represent major leaps forward for mobility. The companies seem to have discovered the secret to making such bold leaps: Cut Microsoft out of the deal.

One technology involves enabling users to gain instant access to a laptop's e-mail, browser and other basic functionality -- without booting Windows at all.

The second technology enables an Internet-based message to wake a Windows PC from sleep mode. It's useful both for voice-over-IP (VoIP) applications and for anyone away from their PC who wants remote access.

These new technologies are perfect metaphors for what's happening in the industry. In both cases, Windows is asleep while Microsoft's own partners give users what they really want.

Let's have a look at the new technologies.

Dell Latitude On

Dell announced this week a new feature called Latitude On that enables the use of e-mail, Web surfing, basic personal information manager functionality and document reading -- all without booting Windows. The idea is to enable basic use without having to wait for the main operating system to boot and to extend battery life.

A more accurate name than "Latitude On" would have been "Windows Off."

The code name was "BlackTop," a combination of "BlackBerry" and "laptop." The original aim of the project was to give users the same basic functionality of a BlackBerry using their laptops' full-size keyboard and screen.

What Dell is really doing here is building the equivalent of a secondary Asus Eee PC into a full-featured, full-size laptop. The Latitude On feature uses a low-power Intel Atom processor, flash storage and Linux (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10) separate from the laptop's main CPU, hard drive and Windows operating system. But unlike a subnotebook, the Latitude On system won't allow you to install applications. It's essentially a "cloud computing" device that depends on the Internet for much of its functionality.

As far as I can tell, none of the applications are made by Microsoft. On's custom Web browser is based on Firefox. E-mail, "diary" and contacts are, of course, non-Microsoft applications. But some Microsoft data types are supported in one way or another. For example, the system includes viewers for Microsoft Office documents as well as for Adobe PDF documents. The built-in organizer grabs the 100 most recent Outlook e-mail messages from the laptop's cache and displays them.

If you use only Latitude On, battery life lasts not hours but days, according to Dell.

The system is expected to hit in two months for just some of Dell's laptops.

From a Microsoft perspective, Latitude On represents a debacle comparable to the ultramobile PC (UMPC) disaster. Microsoft led a big push to drive sales of Vista-based UMPCs, all of which failed catastrophically in the market, rejected by users in favor of Linux-based, then XP-based subnotebooks.

Now it's happening again. Remember Windows Vista Sideshow? The feature was part of a broader effort by Microsoft to provide basic functionality on laptops while the main Windows operating system was in sleep mode. A tiny screen on the lid would display the user interface. Obviously, that failed, and now partner Dell is delivering roughly similar but vastly superior functionality using Linux and other non-Microsoft software.

Intel Remote Wake

Intel introduced new technology yesterday called Remote Wake, a chip set and software development kit that enables a PC to be "awakened" over the Internet when in sleep mode.

Intel worked not with software giant Microsoft, but with VoIP start-up JaJah to build Mountain View, Calif.-based company's software into the Intel chip set in some PCs. The Intel-JaJah combination will enable you to dump your land-line phone and use a PC-based VoIP phone without leaving your PC on all the time. Other VoIP applications, such as Skype, can also take advantage of Remote Wake but will need to be tweaked to support Remote Wake, then installed by the user. Orb Networks, CyberLink and Pando Networks are also Intel partners on Remote Wake.

Remote Wake should also be useful beyond VoIP calls for things such as remote, off-peak backups and for downloading media and other files. Remote Wake also makes PCs greener, because they don't have to be left on all the time.

You can check out a demo on the Pando site.

Again, from Microsoft's perspective, this is another disaster. It couldn't be more obvious that Microsoft and Intel should have partnered on this functionality 10 years ago. Microsoft has been pushing Remote Desktop and its communications software for years. But apparently it never occurred to anyone in Redmond that people might want to leave their PCs in sleep mode, then have them turn on for remote access or VoIP calls.

Based on all the information released so far, there is literally no downside (other than marginal additional cost) to either of these new offerings. They both improve life dramatically for mobile users.

The usefulness of these technologies stands in stark contrast to Microsoft Windows' ongoing slumber. When is the last time Microsoft rolled out something that boosted mobility the way these new features do?

The "old Microsoft" would have never allowed all this. The company would have leveraged its multibillion-dollar labs to figure all this out first, then coerced Intel, Dell and the rest of the industry into supporting it. Now, Microsoft is on the sidelines while its closest partners innovate using companies that compete with Microsoft in the software marketplace.

When will Microsoft itself wake up from "sleep mode"?

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, "The World Is My Office." You can contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, "The Raw Feed."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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