Device makers explore the shape of things to come

LAS VEGAS, NEV. — Vendors at Comdex Fall 2001 say they are trying to put some originality back into original equipment manufacturing by creating PCs and handhelds that may never make it to market.

Though it has plenty of existing products to display at its two booths in the Las Vegas Convention Centre, National Semiconductor Inc. is getting more attention for a device that is little more than a working prototype. Called Origami, the machine’s form factor can be changed depending on what it is being used for. These functions include a personal digital assistant, a camcorder, a VCR, a smart phone and an MP3 player, among others. Tim Bajarin, president of consulting firm Creative Strategies Inc., has already trotted out the “Swiss army knife” cliché to describe it. But Brian Hall, National Semiconductor’s chairman, told a conference panel that the Origami is simply there to make a point.

“I just wanted to show that devices accessing information can be done using analogue,” he said. “I would never advocate trying to do all these things (in one device). I actually think handhelds should be designed for vertical markets.”

For some companies, Comdex represents an opportunity to get in early on what could become an important industry trend. At this year’s opening keynote address, Microsoft chief software architect Bill Gates gave a boost to the nascent Web tablet market with the announcement of a Windows XP Tablet PC Edition to be released next year. In response, Tatung Co. from Taipei made sure to debut a Tablet PC design long before the platform is officially released.

Alexis Yang, a designer at Tatung, was demonstrating both the Tablet PC and the company’s existing tablet product, which will eventually become more of an entry-level machine. “Right now you can use this to run Microsoft Office,” he said of the tablet. “It is a good device for accessing the Internet, whereas this (the Tablet PC) is a full-function PC.”

Elsewhere in Las Vegas, major brand names used invitation-only events to offer a sneak peek at what’s on their drawing boards. Intel Corp., for example, has been running a program with key partners to create concept desktop designs using its processors.

Last year the most talked-about concept PC came from Hewlett-Packard: Deep Forest, one of the smallest and most silent machines it had ever created. Eric Chaniot, vice-president of HP’s business PC division, said many of the innovations in Deep Forest have been incorporated into the latest addition to its ePC line, which was launched this week.

This year, HP’s concept PC (which has no code-name) consists of a very small purple 2 GHz P4-based chassis and an enormous flat-panel LCD display which can either sit on a desk or be mounted on the wall. The display, which is about the size of a small coffee table, also includes a video camera and a large built-in microphone. A CD writer has been engineered into the side, USB 2 has been used to take the I/O out of the chassis and wireless RF standards connect the mouse and keyboard.

Chaniot said HP has already been showing the design to some select customers. “They like the fact that everything the user needs to access is right there,” he said. “But they said the computing box had better be made for a good price. Forget the fancy design on that because they may change and upgrade the box very often, but they won’t want to change the display.”

There is always a sort of ingenuity gap between what R&D labs come up with when they’re not worrying about price versus what becomes a mass-market item, said Don Alexander, Intel’s senior design engineer. Alexander helped design the motherboard for one of the other concept PCs on display, Taishan, which has the optical drive built into a box that sits directly under the flat-panel monitor. “The idea is that everything the user would have access to is in the same place,” he said, rather than a larger chassis that sits under a table that forces users to bend down.

Intel developed Taishan with Legend Holdings Ltd., one of the largest PC manufacturers in mainland China. Alexander said it was too early to say whether it would ever hit retail shelves, but he said there was some value in simply exploring ideas in design.

“They learned a lot about how to put a high-performance Pentium 4 into a small product,” he said. “Until you do it, you can’t really know whether it’s something customers will want. But just the design itself can be pretty important. There’s a lot of plain beige boxes out there. Some of them you WANT to put under the desk.”

Chaniot said design of new products is based around users, IT managers and procurement people, each with their own set of demands. “Procurement is pretty easy — they just want the best price,” he said. “The user wants the most silent, the smallest, the most cool device. The IT manager, they want control over what they’ll have to manage.”

Halla said there would come a day when users would stop “worshipping” the device or system and simply take products for granted, because the content will be the important factor.

“Everyone who goes into a store to buy a PC asks how much gigahertz its got, and 90per cent of them don’t even know what a gigahertz is,” he said.

Dave Nagel, Palm Inc.‘s new CEO of the Palm OS platform who once worked on Apple’s Newton handheld, agreed. “We have somehow come to equate size with goodness. If it has enough crap in it, it must be good,” he said, adding that ease of use has taken a back seat as a result. “As an industry, we should be embarrassed. We have done a great job of making products that should be useful not useful.”

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