Future of the notebook

Steal a notebook computer from McKesson Corp. and you may be surprised to find that the data on its hard drive has self-destructed in your hands. "We have a security application that says things like, 'Too many failed log-in attempts, nuke the data,' " says Bruce Kantelis, vice president for mobile computing at McKesson in Alpharetta, Ga.

Giving central IT shops the ability to reach out to mobile computers - to destroy stolen information before it can be read, update applications automatically or repair damage from viruses and other causes - is just one of the trends that will reshape the portable PC over the next five years.

Meanwhile, notebook processors will double in power every two years, to 12 GHz in five years, predict industry observers. Disks will shrink and may be replaced by solid-state memory. Displays will grow clearer, brighter and more energy-efficient and may even unfold to desktop size.

The efficiency of batteries will improve, but perhaps not enough to keep up with power-hungry applications such as multimedia and wireless communications.

Overall, the future of portable computers lies along two axes, as defined by the work habits of users.

"For some, the notebook is primarily a desktop in the office and a notebook at home," says Kantelis. "Then you have the real traveler, the road warrior."

Computer makers say they'll differentiate their products for those two groups. For the mostly office-bound user, they plan to make and portables with large screens, the most powerful CPUs, limited battery life and docking stations. Road warriors will get smaller and lighter units with all-day batteries but less powerful processors.

Strange and wondrous hybrids will hit the market, too, but most will quickly disappear or find niche applications. But whatever type of portable PC they prefer, users will be the winners because they'll see more choices, more capabilities and lower prices.

Form and Function

Tablet PCs will take several forms, including this
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Tablet PCs will take several forms, including this "single slab" style from Taiwan's PaceBlade Technologies.
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Tablets, a third category of portable PC, will soon join notebooks and subnotebooks. "It's the middle ground between the traditional clamshell notebook design and the small form factor designs like PDAs," says Matthew Wagner, product marketing manager at Hewlett-Packard Co.

Microsoft Corp. is beating the tablet drum, recently introducing the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system (see story). HP and others plan to offer devices based on XP Tablet by the end of the year.

A Tablet PC is about the size of a legal pad and includes a digital pen for handwritten data entry and navigation. Its advocates say it will be just the thing for the most mobile workers, including those who work standing up and those who just don't like to type.

But naysayers point out that tablet-style computers have been tried before and failed (albeit with technical flaws that vendors now claim to have overcome). Tablets will remain niche products at best, say these critics.

Wagner predicts that we won't see a convergence of devices -- such as computers, cell phones and pagers -- all in one unit. "Each design is suited for a certain set of tasks, and too much combination will result in too much compromise," he says.

Nevertheless, a few vendors are pinning their hopes on approaches that break established molds, such as the Meta Pad from Antelope Technologies in Littleton, Colo.

The Meta Pad is a tiny "mobile computer core" that can change from desktop to notebook to tablet to wearable by connecting to different I/O devices, as the user chooses. Based on a research prototype developed by IBM, the device automatically adapts its power, thermal management and user interface behavior depending on the accessories attached.

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Just add a monitor to the Zero-Footprint-PC, from Cybernet Manufacturing.
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Just add a monitor to the Zero-Footprint-PC, from Cybernet Manufacturing.
Then there's the Zero-Footprint-PC, a computer embedded in a keyboard, from Cybernet Manufacturing Inc. in Irvine, Calif. Just add monitor.

Leslie Fiering, a mobile computing analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., says hybrids and variations such as the Meta Pad and the Zero-Footprint-PC will proliferate and blur the distinction between desktops and notebooks.

"Maybe you have a bunch of different shells you use in different situations," she says. "And with [radio frequency] with Bluetooth, we don't even have to have all the components for a portable device in one box. You could have a little wireless terminal server in your briefcase, with I/O in your hand."

According to Fiering, "You are going to see a lot of experimentation for a couple of years, starting toward the end of next year, and then the market will choose."

Processors

For more than three decades, the power of microprocessors has doubled every 18 to 24 months, and most observers expect that to continue for another 10 years or so. The same progress is being made in other functions in silicon, such as graphics processing.

Some portables will have the full power of desktop machines. But the most mobile units will use processors like Intel Corp.'s new Banias chip. Due to be introduced next year, Banias is Intel's first microprocessor designed specifically for mobile computers. It will have a little less power than other Intel chips, but it will run cooler, it won't drain batteries as quickly, and it will offer better power management.

But Intel won't have a monopoly on power-efficient processors. Transmeta Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., claims that its Crusoe processor consumes up to 70% less power and runs cooler than its Intel x86 equivalent. It does that by moving some instructions from hardware to software. The processor gathers statistics as it runs, and when it finds heavily used sequences of x86 instructions, it dynamically recompiles them into native code optimized for the Crusoe processor.

McKesson's Kantelis uses a Casio Fiva subnotebook with a 10-in. screen, a 600-MHz Crusoe processor and a seven-hour battery. "I'd like to have 1 GHz," he says. "But I can fly from Atlanta to California and work."

Displays

The Visioneering program at Compaq—now part of HP—came up with this futuristic notebook design.
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The Visioneering program at Compaq—now part of HP—came up with this futuristic notebook design.
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Brian Connors, the chief technology officer in IBM's personal computing division, says the big advancement in displays during the next three to five years will be the emergence of organic LEDs (OLED).

OLED screens will be lighter and brighter and will consume less power than today's displays, he says. They will also be thin and flexible - even foldable. But Connors refuses to predict when we will reach what he calls "nirvana" -- electronic newspapers.

The organic chemicals in OLED displays emit their own light when electrically charged and don't rely on backlighting, which adds weight, cost and thickness to the screen. There is also research going on to develop materials to replace the heavy, inflexible glass substrate in displays. Such materials will begin to be used in about four years, predicts HP's Wagner.

Mike Stinson, vice president of mobile products at Gateway Inc. in San Diego, says notebook screens for the occasionally mobile user could grow to 17 in. "It will be a desktop replacement for people who want a notebook because it takes up less space," he says.

Disk and Memory

"The disk drive trend is one you can always count on - areal density doubles every year," says HP's Wagner. Even so, it will be at least 2005 before new storage technology fundamentally affects notebook design, he says. Then disk storage might begin to give way to always-on nonvolatile RAM (NV-RAM). "NV-RAM will be the big new story in notebooks, first as a disk-augmentation technology providing caching and improved performance," Wagner says.

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The IBM-developed Meta Pad is a complete
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The IBM-developed Meta Pad is a complete "computer core" that can be inserted into a notebook chassis.
Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM (DDR SDRAM) will also become commonplace, according to Wagner. It will improve system performance by speeding data transfer between CPU and memory so that memory doesn't become a bottleneck as CPU power soars.

Indeed, IBM has already extended DDR SDRAM technology in its experimental DDR2 SDRAM, which is expected to increase memory bandwidth to a whopping 6.4G bit/sec. in notebooks that ship late in 2005.

Meanwhile, other advancements are appearing. In September, Toshiba Corp. and NEC Corp. said they'll develop by 2005 a new kind of memory device called Magnetic RAM. The Japan-based companies say MRAM will cut power consumption and retain data when power is off.

Gartner's Fiering says that Universal Serial Bus (USB) 2.0, which can transfer data at 480M bit/sec., will spell the end of the three-spindle notebook. Floppy and CD drives will be replaced by USB 2.0 ports that allow the user to connect a variety of storage media, such as IBM's 128MB Memory Key or 1GB Microdrive.

"We'll see hard drives go from 2.5 in. to 1.8 in.," says Brian Zucker, technology evangelist at Dell Computer Corp. "For the higher-end notebooks, we'll use that extra space to improve, for example, the audio subsystem. For others, we'll just take that extra space out and make them smaller."

Wireless

The ThumbDrive Touch from Trekstor is a tiny data storage device that requires a fingerprint to unlock the data.
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The ThumbDrive Touch from Trekstor is a tiny data storage device that requires a fingerprint to unlock the data.
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In two to three years, mobile professionals won't have to decide whether or not to order notebook computers with a wireless LAN option. By then, 80% to 90% of all notebooks will come with built-in chips to support one or more versions of industry standard 802.11, or Wi-Fi, wireless LANs.

Intel's Banias mobile processor will integrate the 802.11b (11M bit/sec.) and 802.11a (54M bit/sec.) wireless LAN standards into the microprocessor, says Anand Chandrasekher, vice president of Intel's mobile platforms group.

Within two years, major manufacturers such as IBM will also have built wireless LAN antennas into all of their notebooks, according to Leo Suarez, vice president of marketing at IBM's personal computing division.

Texas Instruments Inc. also plans to develop a dual-band mini-Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) card to provide users with both 802.11b and 802.11g standards, according to Matt Kurtz, marketing manager at Dallas-based TI's wireless LAN business unit. He says 802.11g offers the same 54M bit/sec. throughput as 802.11a but in the same 2.4-GHz band as 802.11b, which delivers a slightly longer range than 802.11a.

But building cellular or wide-area network connectivity into a notebook PC is a daunting task, says Jason Cohenour, vice president at Sierra Wireless Inc. in Richmond, British Columbia. That's why, except for specialized computers designed for field workers such as utility crews, mobile workers who require WAN capability during the next two or three years will need to buy a plug-in PC card.

IBM's Suarez disagrees, saying the company is working to develop mini-PCI WAN cards -- along with built-in WAN antennas -- for use in its ThinkPad line of notebooks within the next two to three years.

Batteries

Don't expect to find an exotic power source such as fuel cells in your notebook computer anytime soon. Despite all the hype about cells' ability to power notebooks longer than the two to four hours provided by the lithium ion batteries now in widespread use, manufacturers plan to stick with batteries for now. Suarez says that fuel cell manufacturers can't deliver them at a price equal to that of today's batteries.

He says that lithium ion battery technology has more than kept pace with the growing power demands of notebooks -- a fact that may escape users because the battery life of the machines they're buying today is the same as that of earlier models. What users forget, Suarez says, is that the new computers use more power than the old ones because they have faster processors and bigger screens.

Electrovaya Inc. has developed the ultimate notebook lithium ion battery, which delivers as much as 16 hours of operating life, claims Sankar Das Gupta, the Toronto-based company's CEO. The batteries sell for the rather stiff price of $499 each, but Das Gupta says Electrovaya could bring its prices way down if it receives volume orders.

Lithium polymer batteries have gained headway in the portable device market, powering HP's iPaq Pocket PCs, for example. The electrolyte in lithium polymer batteries has the consistency of Silly Putty, so the batteries can be shaped to fit into the nooks and crannies of a notebook, saving weight. But polymer still sells at a premium over ion.

Julius Cirin, vice president of marketing at UltraLife Batteries Inc. in Newark, N.Y., which manufactures lithium polymer batteries for industrial and military systems, says he expects lithium polymer prices to drop within two years, making them a viable alternative to ion batteries, especially in featherweight notebooks.

Security

Security functions will be moved from software to hardware, where they're more tamper-proof. In September, Intel announced that it would work with VeriSign Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., to implement in hardware VeriSign's digital certificate technology for notebook computers that use Intel's Banias processors. Users then won't have to install vulnerable digital certificate software.

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