Microsoft's vision of the business PC

Athens is a conceptual product from Microsoft and HP and is designed to demonstrate the future of PC hardware, but haven't we seen its like before?

Like the proverbial shark, the PC industry must keep moving to survive. The problem is, at this stage in the platform's development the hardware is cheap, plentiful and more than powerful enough for any office task. Why should users ever upgrade again? This question has been troubling hardware manufacturers. It's also of great concern at Microsoft, which depends heavily on new computer sales for its handsome OS revenue stream. The company has been investigating ways that current PC technology can be improved for business, and has come up with Athens -- a demonstration platform built in conjunction with HP that exemplifies the areas where, the companies hope, design improvements can lead to fresh sales. Microsoft and partners have identified three main areas where today's computer falls short: telephony, usability and display. Although unified messaging isn't mentioned by name, the company says that voice over IP, ordinary telephones and cellular networks should be integrated with instant messaging and video conferencing, and that Athens should have hardware and software support for all of the above as standard. There's also an emphasis on audio and video quality, both by having good integrated components and in reducing the level of noise the computer itself generates, and on attributes users judge to be actually or potentially useful -- answering machines, Bluetooth headsets, and so on. As with unified messaging, the justification for this is that Athens becomes much better than the unintegrated components it replaces. Audio quality is better, and the computer can link caller ID with other data on the system such as the last few emails with the caller, the history of your relationship with them, information about them and so on. Also, telephony is easier if the way you use it is consistent with the way you use other things on the computer: a common interface is one of the biggest benefits of integration. Another set of ideas that Athens shares with the desktop telephone is that of an appliance that works at the moment you want it and doesn't consume resources when it doesn't. Microsoft's research shows what we all know to be true -- that the different power management modes of sleep and suspend are subtle and confusing. Users want a computer that turns on and off immediately, the only two states that matter. There should be no latency between the two, and the state of the machine should be preserved. Security from power outages is also very important to users, so Athens has to be able to put itself into the 'off' mode with state preserved even if the mains goes away. All this points to designing for very low power consumption, and Microsoft says that Athens should use around a sixth of the electricity of today's CRT-based PC. Of course, Athens is an LCD-based computer, and Microsoft is a subscriber to the more the merrier as a measure of screen usability. In particular, the ability to work on two documents side by side is very productive, although due to the cost of LCDs it's not possible to mandate this. The screen itself isn't the only visual output device; the Athens spec also calls for auxiliary displays that constantly show useful information such as time or caller ID, as well as indicators that show whether email, voice mail or other messages are waiting regardless of the state of the main unit. These are on the frame around the display, and operate in the user's peripheral vision -- thus not distracting from the main task until the user is ready to deal with them. Likewise, controls for the phone and, optionally, media playback operate even when the main unit is off -- although they also interact with application software when the unit is turned on. Microsoft is presenting Athens as the result of much research, and in particular embodying concepts that users have indicated they'd pay premiums for -- up to $400 on top of the price of today's typical business PC. However, many of the ideas are prefigured by such oddities as ICL's One Per Desk from 1984. This was an integrated computer-cum-telephone with integrated instant-on applications, messaging, power management, silent running and as much intelligent telephony and data communication as the technology of the time would allow. Furthermore, it was marketed to the business community as having many of the same benefits as Athens. It was an unmitigated failure, mostly because it was triumphantly incompatible with the PC-DOS standard that was emerging at the time but also because it used a profoundly eccentric tape storage medium. And of course, the 'single information appliance' approach has been central to Apple's strategy for at least the last twenty years -- with somewhat more success. Whatever aspects of Athens make it into the business PC of tomorrow, the stakes are very high for hardware and software manufacturers alike. Expect considerable pressure from all sides to adopt the Athens model of computing -- and this may be no bad thing.


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