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Desktopia: the future under your fingertips

Desktopia: the future under your fingertips

Change is the only thing you can depend on in this life, and nothing in the IT world appears on the verge of a bigger change than desktop technology. This impending transformation is likely to bring about a shift in industry power and influence away from Microsoft and Intel and toward companies that provide connectivity or content. It will alter our offices and the way we work by replacing the large, application-crammed, unreliable PC with a simple full-function device that puts the complexity where it belongs - in the back office, not on the desktop.

Why is this happening, and why is it happening now? The forces driving the change are coming from several quarters, and they are all converging on the desktop.

The roots of change

For years customers have been asking for an appliance-like experience from their desktop equipment. You plug it in, turn it on and it works - end of story. What's amazing is that this has been the one thing that vendors heretofore have been unable to deliver. But the market is moving in that direction, and it will get there with or without the help of today's vendors.

This change isn't taking place only on traditional PC platforms but on alternative platforms as well. The Jupiter-class CE-based personal computer from Packard Bell NEC, for example, is a prototype of what the desktop of the future may hold. Looking much like a laptop, it provides 10 hours of battery life, instant on and off and, eventually, when coupled to a multi-user server, a near-PC experience.

These devices already can display presentations, handle e-mail, do light document creation and manage contacts and calendars reasonably well.

Future generations are likely to replace most laptop computers with a product that is closer to what users want, yet is completely different from today's machines - an appliance that virtually never crashes at the desktop.

What's taken so long? Some vendors have simply had selective hearing about their customers' wishes, but more fundamentally, habit is to blame. PC companies built their initial machines on a standard based on the hobbyist's box from the early 80s.

It took a few companies (that is, Oracle and Sun Microsystems) to break with that standard to uncover some of the real cravings of users.

If either Oracle or Sun had truly understood what it was they were trying to provide when they ventured out with the network computer concept, we might already be dealing with a whole different desktop experience and a new set of vendors to provide it.

Those two companies, however, being essentially anti-PC, had trouble creating a PC replacement. Yet despite their failures, the concept of network computing resonated and validated the Windows terminal, which has the advantages of a network computer and runs Windows applications.

Another portent of change is the US versus Microsoft trial. Watching it was almost as compelling for some as the OJ Simpson trial a few years ago. The antitrust case has already had a significant impact on the public's perception of the consumer computer business as the players are being portrayed in a light that is hardly flattering for any of them. Both Microsoft and Intel will likely see their reputations suffer, and their ability to direct change will likely suffer as well.

Just as legal action against IBM in the 60s spurred the move to PCs in the 80s, the attack on Intel and Microsoft will enable change.

It may produce a windfall for other vendors or emerging companies, or it could simply stall the market. But one result is sure within a few years: a metamorphosis in what we have on our desktop as well as who provides it.

The most likely move right now appears to be to Linux (a freeware follow-on to Unix developed by Unix core developers) and dedicated hardware. Whether we are talking about single-use servers, specialised desktops or both, the opportunity for a hardware vendor to take Linux and create a unique and differentiable offering is stronger than ever before. It is likely that at least one vendor will deliver such a system within 12 months.

If others follow, this could spell the beginning of Microsoft's decline and the emergence of a new desktop standard.

Besides these pressures, a once-in-a-lifetime event is expected to bring many companies to their knees and force a technology shift of unprecedented size and scope. The year 2000 problem is likely to generate corrective action next year as firms attempt to recover from total system shutdowns. IT managers will have to risk radical approaches to return their companies to operation, and that may well mean a forced migration to a new platform.

We expect companies will slow purchases dramatically in the last quarter of this year and the first half of next year as they attempt to correct year 2000 exposures. This will create a unique opportunity for suppliers of alternative solutions to replace the existing technology base and drive change into the market. Meanwhile, IT organisations that have already shifted from a desktop-based to a server-based model will be able to respond to the Y2K threat more quickly, and their highly visible success should further drive the market in that direction.

The future inside

Next year will see the launch of a number of technologies that will have a lasting impact on what we work with over the next three to five years.

Windows 2000 (formerly Windows NT), a product that has been long anticipated, finally seems to be within three months of shipping. But most companies have indicated that they will be unable and unwilling to buy into it until they have completed their year 2000 remediation and seen that Windows 2000 is reliable.

The growth reflected by Windows CE is a placeholder, and this growth could be taken up by dedi-cated Linux desktops or even by Apple Computer's Macintosh machines should CE fail to meet expectations. (Both operating environments are currently being sold into specialised areas and not positioned as a general-use desktop. This is beginning to change with the iMac, and we expect the Mac OS to play an important part in next year's projection.)Intel's next refresh of Pentium II technology has already been released as the Pentium III and will run best on Windows 2000. In fact, the performance increase is anticipated to be great enough for current Pentium II systems to enjoy a shorter time in service as a result. That is, anyone buying hardware for Windows 2000 will want Pentium III to go with it and will probably dump the old Pentium II 'before its time'. The Pentium III will be followed shortly by a chipset code-named Coppermine, which is expected to be launched on October 24. Coppermine might well make most existing mobile equipment obsolete by providing a level of performance unmatched in today's portable equipment.

As for storage, it wasn't long ago that we thought 10 megabytes was more than we would ever need. Now 6.5 gigabytes is almost a regular feature on the desktop. Consumers can make their own CDs today, their own DVDs tomorrow and a new technology, solid-state optical drives from companies like the US-based Ioptics, is expected to enter the market soon, changing the entire storage landscape. Given the concurrent shift from applications to servers, the expected desktop requirements for storage appear about to decline for the first time ever.

The shapes to come

Displays are changing, with 15 inch flat panels-equivalent to 17 inch cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors' prices taking a dive. These displays offer flicker-free performance, virtually no radiation, a life cycle near twice what a CRT provides and a return of desktop real-estate long wasted by today's oversized CRTs. With technological improvements, cost reductions and performance advantages, flat panel displays are expected to replace CRTs in the market within two years.

The physiques of other devices will change as well. Apple delivered a wake-up call to the market with iMac, and Intel has responded with a cutting- edge design of its own. Board manufacturers like MSI Computer are now moving aggressively to the MicroATX parts that can be used in a number of unique ways.

And finally, the age of the beige PC box is drawing to a close and we are about to see an influx of small, attractive and surprisingly capable personal computers.

User interface is one of the most remarkable arenas for change. Technologies from Dragon Systems and IBM are likely to turn the mouse and keyboard of today into the dinosaurs of tomorrow. One of the most intriguing replacements for the keyboard is the digital recorder coupled with speech recognition software. This allows a user to create a document when a keyboard and mouse are impractical, and foretells a time when we will put on our computers in the morning much the same way we now put on a shirt. In fact, the shirt will be the computer.

Arrange for change

These technologies will all begin to come together around the year 2002.

A weakened Microsoft and Intel will be vulnerable to attack, appliance-like architectures will be reaching maturity, and new machine designs will be moving onto our desktops, into our homes and onto our backs.

To prepare for this change you'll need to reduce the complexity in your shops by eliminating redundant vendors, establishing and enforcing standards and shifting as much as you can of the application load from desktop systems to servers. Create user councils so that emerging needs can be anticipated and met in a timely way while creating a base of users to support and take advantage of technological advances.

Ready or not, change is coming. Take advantage of the opportunities presented to improve your organisation's competitive capability, reduce your and your users' aggravation and, since you can't hide from this change, try to enjoy it.

Tool gives Windows CE app development boostWindows CE developers got an assist in building applications for embedded systems and handhelds two weeks ago as Rogue Wave Software announced CE Suite 99. The US-based company said the tool can help build charts and grids in CE applications.

CE Suite adds one more weapon to a rather skimpy arsenal of Windows CE developer tools, Rogue Wave developer Paul Saunders said.

The dearth of CE tools led Saunders to Rogue Wave. 'There is a plethora of tools for Win 98 and NT, but for Windows CE, there is very little, if any,' he said.

Saunders said it is a popular myth that Windows CE is easy to develop applications for, especially if you are a Windows developer. 'Everybody says if you can develop for Windows 98, you can develop for CE, but there's really no knowledge base yet,' Saunders said.

He has used a beta version of the new CE Suite to build a CE application for handhelds that technicians in the field will use to test fiber-optic networks.

The kit allowed Saunders to develop an application that can quickly convert readings into charts so that users can rapidly and easily spot trouble areas, he said.

Priced at $US1495 per developer, CE Suite 99 will provide 'enormous benefits' to companies, Saunders said. 'Writing our own charting tools is very time-consuming, and time is something most companies don't have.'

There are factors that differentiate the development of applications for Windows 98 and CE, Saunders said. For example, Windows CE machines run in colour or grey and have a smaller screen, he said. Also, CE is a Unicode environment with no physical storage. 'It requires a great deal of rethinking,' he said.

Analyst David Kelly, at Hurwitz Group in the US, said he agrees that there's a need for more CE tools.

The lack of a feature-rich development tool may be one reason 'Windows CE hasn't taken off as fast as Microsoft wants,' he said.

For now, Rogue Wave is competing directly with Microsoft for CE developer market share, Kelly said.

Rogue Wave products are distributed in Australia by:

Microway (03) 9580 1333 and

Scientific & Industrial Software (03) 9419 2480. By Matt HamblenDesktop users see murky future for OS/2Devotees of the desktop version of IBM'S OS/2 are again pronouncing the death of the operating system, after a company said its negotiations with IBM on adding functionality to the software broke down.

Stardock, a US-based desktop software company, recently posted a statement to some OS/2 newsgroups which said that talks with IBM to produce and support a souped-up version of the operating system for the desktop had come to an end.

OS/2 was developed by Microsoft and IBM, but was later abandoned by Microsoft when it developed its own Windows operating system. Although it often has been declared extinct, OS/2 is still used among financial institutions and also has a small but enthusiastic group of desktop users.

It is well known that IBM only supports large corporate customers with OS/2, with products such as the Warp Server. Contacted last week, IBM spokesman Christopher Barger reiterated the company stance that IBM is 'very much focused on the server end of the market. It [OS/2] is not a desktop play.' He called it a viable e-business operating system.

Specifically asked about Stardock, Barger said IBM never comments on specific discussions it has with companies. 'We have discussions with different companies all the time,' he said.

Stardock was in talks with IBM to see if the company would allow it to work with the client portion of OS/2, adding some new components to it to make it more competitive as desktop software, according to Brad Wardell, Stardock's founder. Stardock makes desktop-management software based on OS/2, which the company is also in the process of porting to Microsoft's Windows operating system.

After six months of negotiations, according to Wardell, the deal fell through after IBM decided it was not in its interest to license any current OS/2 technology on an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) basis.

'The issue isn't that IBM won't allow us [Stardock] to do a client, the issue is that it seems IBM is not interested in doing a new version of OS/2 at all,' Wardell said.

OS/2's chances of surviving as a desktop system are very dim, Wardell said. 'Without a new version of OS/2 at a reasonable price with reasonable availability, there is not much hope in such a market surviving in the long term. After all, with [the operating systems] MacOS X, Windows 2000, BeOS, and Linux all being updated in major ways, how long can OS/2 go without being updated before it is no longer a viable desktop alternative?'

IBM's last new version of the operating system, called OS/2 Warp 4, was released in 1996. Since then, IBM has released fixes to that version.

As the news spread on the Internet that there will be no Stardock deal, ardent OS/2 fans quickly voiced their disappointment, with some saying they may switch to the Linux operating system.

'OS/2 is dead. Once again. Definitely this time,' said Adrian Gschwend, in a statement posted on the Internet. Gschwend is actually one of the more optimistic OS/2 users.

He heads a project called OS/2 Netlabs, which is developing freely available applications for OS/2. He sees the project as the best future for the operating system.

For IBM information on OS/2, see: http://www.software.ibm.com/os/warp/.

By Mary Lisbeth D'Amico

Sun mounts attack on desktop

Sun Microsystems has pulled a one-two punch on the corporate client market over the last few weeks by announcing both software and hardware moves to challenge the Wintel stronghold of commercial desktops.

As Microsoft's archrival, Sun went into the acquisition mode in order to assume the ownership of Star Division Corporation and its StarOffice 5.1 suite of Java-based productivity applications and add them to Sun's growing arsenal of 'dot-com' products for ISPs, application service providers (ASPs) and enterprises.

In scooping up Star's technology, Sun has acquired not only a line of downloadable thin-client Java productivity applications, but a slew of multi-platform client applications. Sun has since described StarOffice as 'a strategic element of Sun's Portal initiative'.

The company followed the acquisition with the announcement of its latest play in the thin-client hardware market. Twice knocked down in the thin-client market but not out of contention, Sun has unveiled a new 'information appliance' that sheds the Java-only mentality of its previous workstations.

Known as Sun Ray 1, this network appliance is expected to cut management, maintenance and upgrade costs for businesses further than previous thin-client devices have allowed.

Unlike prior network computers - including Sun's own JavaStation - the Sun Ray device requires no processing on the client side, according to Sun officials. The Sun Ray essentially displays applications running on the server-side, and provides an input mechanism that lets users access those applications.

'We have created a stateless and compute-less desktop to get you off the upgrade track for good,' said Ed Zander, Sun president and chief operating officer.

The SunRay measures 11 x 12 inches and is 4 inches thick (280 x 306 x 102 millimeters), incorporates a MicroSPARC chip, 8MB of RAM, and a smart card reader, but no operating system. The current version of the machine offers no ability to attach local storage. The device works in conjunction with the company's new Sun Ray Enterprise Server software and Hot Desk software technology. The server software provides user authentication services and manages software sessions between the client and server hardware. It also gives users access to networked peripherals.

And Sun's purchase of Star has provided the linchpin that makes its thin clients useful.

Star Division's office applications, called StarOffice, run on Windows, Unix, Solaris, Java, and other platforms. And StarOffice is better than Java software at incorporating the formats of Microsoft Office applications such as PowerPoint, Word, and Excel.

Industry observers said software has always been a critical issue with JavaStations. 'The early attempts at Java computers were doomed to failure because there just wasn't software that provided a compelling case for end users to use it,' said Tom Austin, an analyst at GartnerGroup.

Sun unveiled its first JavaStation in 1996. In March 1998 Sun announced the commercial availability of the retooled JavaStation and customers, including AlliedSignal and PHP Healthcare, signed up for the devices, but overall sales were slow because of the lack of applications.

Sources said Sun will position the new models as front ends for ASPs, processing, and call centre operations.

Some industry watchers said it might be difficult for Sun to penetrate a market in which Microsoft and Citrix Systems - which provides the thin-client operating system to run Microsoft applications - are firmly entrenched.

StarOffice 5.1 is priced at $25 for orders placed over the Web.what's new from . . . AppleA year after the original iMac hit the consumer and education markets, Apple has launched a trio of new iMac computers, offering desktop video, AirPort wireless networking and fan-free operation.

The new family includes; iMac, iMac DV (for 'digital video') and iMac DV Special Edition, which has the same configuration as iMac DV but comes with 128MB SDRAM and a 13GB Ultra ATA hard drive.

The iMac comes in blueberry, the iMac DV in a choice of blueberry, grape, lime, strawberry and tangerine, and the iMac DV Special Edition is enclosed in a clear graphite casing.

The new models are completely redesigned to be faster, sleeker, quieter and make accessing the Internet easier, according to Apple.

Highlights

64MB memory standard, with expansion up to 512MBA Rage 128 VR 2D/3D high-end graphics accelerator chip Fan-free operation, reducing noise to half that of competitive products when the computer is in use and below the threshold of most people's hearing when the iMac is idlingWireless Internet access through AirPort wireless networkingA slot-load DVD-ROM drive, with the added ability to play DVD movies directly on screen, on both DV modelsNew iMovie software on both DV models, allowing users to create professional quality moviesRRP: iMac $1995, iMac DV $2595 and iMac DV Special Edition $2995.

Mac OS 9

Apple has also launched its new Macintosh operating system, Mac OS 9, available in Australia in the first week of November.

The new operating system features a total of nine Internet 'power tools', including the debut of Sherlock 2, the ultimate search engine for news, people and personal shopping.

Sherlock 2 lets users search for merchandise across multiple sources at once, comparing products, prices and availability in one convenient window.

APPLE Tel 13 3622 http://www.apple.com.auwhat's new from . . . IBMIBM's new PC 300PL models offer an embedded security chip on the motherboard, smart card access and encryption.

Computer security has become a big issue for business, and IBM quoted a recent survey that showed more than three out of five respondents had computer security breached within the last 12 months. Better security and data protection for IBM's new commercial PCs give businesses several ways to protect confidential files, internal networks and Internet transactions. The new PCs also feature Universal Manageability (UM) Services, an overall management application to keep the systems that run a business operating smoothly.

UM Services includes Asset ID, an asset deployment, tracking and security tool, and SMART Reaction, which automatically backs up the customer's data on the hard drive, if the system predicts a crash.

Highlights

Choice of graphics: S3 Trio3D AGP, upgrade to AGP 2X Matrox Millenium G200 adapter with 8MB memory standard, 16MB maximum, or the latest SR9 AGP 2X adapter with S3 Savage4 graphics card with 8MB memory standardIntegrated 10/100 Ethernet with Wake on LANDesktop or minitower configurationIncludes software: Lotus SmartSuite licence, Norton AntiVirus (OEM version), LANClient Control Manager Support, Client Services for Netfinity Manager, Intel LANDesk Client Manager, CoSession Remote 32, ConfigSafe, PC-Doctor, Universal Management Agent enabled, Via Voice (select languages), Tivoli Lightweight Client framework software, SMART Reaction.

RRP: $4094.

IBM Tel 13 2426 http://www.ibm.com.au

what's new from . . . Compaq

Compaq is pitching its new Prosignia range of desktops, notebooks and servers to small business, citing 'industry leading performance, unique manageability features and comprehensive service and support'.

The Prosignia desktop 330 model combines high performance with functionality, according to the company.

It operates with the Intel Pentium III processor, with a choice between the 500MHz/100MHz or 550MHz/100MHz.

The computer is fully network tested and preloaded with a range of software suitable for small business, including Microsoft Windows 98 and Microsoft Office 2000 small business edition, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Norton Anti-Virus software.

Easy customised configuration means the Prosignia models can be tailored to the specific needs of a small business, Compaq added.

The computer comes with a three-year limited warranty.

Highlights

64MB SDRAM

Diamond/nVIDIA Vanta graphics with 16MB

9.1GB Ultra ATA hard drive (8.5ms/7200rpm)52x TrueX CD-ROM driveCreative Soundblaster AudioPCI 128V SWTCompaq Fast Ethernet network cardMicrosoft Windows 98 Second EditionMicrosoft Office 2000 Small BusinessNorton Anti-Virus Version 5.0S700 17 inch colour monitorRRP: $2595 for the 500MHz/100MHz and $2995 for the 550MHz/100MHz.

COMPAQ Tel 1300 368 369 http://www.compaq.com.auwhat's new from . . . IntelIntel has announced it will release its new Itanium IA-64 processor, formerly known by the codename Merced, in the second half of next year.

The new processor will run Microsoft's new 64-bit Windows operating system, but Intel is also working on solutions with other vendors such as Sun and Novell and is planning to port its 64-bit architecture to Linux and Unix platforms by mid next year.

IA-64 architecture will give businesses the opportunity to cash in on the Internet economy and better manage their high-end computing needs, according to Intel.

Highlights

Improved performance of demanding e-Business, visualisation, computation and multimedia operationsExplicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC), which will allow the processor to handle many operations at onceBetter levels of performance, memory support and scalability to support customised services, like varying user profiles, unique data views and specially tailored interfacesEnterprise business applications, including data mining, supply chain management, and OLAP e-Commerce and catalogue solutionsInternet infrastructure, including directory, security, proxy, messaging, transaction processing, cache and Web serversEnhanced Machine Check Architecture (MCA), which provides improved error recovery and enhanced Error Correcting Code (ECC) coverage on memory and data paths.

Price: To be announced.

Intel Tel (02) 9937 5800 http://www.intel.com.au


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