Who has the best desktop vision - HP or IBM?

Rich Castagna: HP sees a modular desktop with lots of connectivity, IBM sees a go-anywhere, do-anything computer core. Crystal balls, or just balls?

Hewlett-Packard has a vision of what the next generation of the desktop PC will look like and what it will be able to do.

At briefings during the annual Comdex computer confab in Las Vegas, HP presented what is essentially the "concept car" equivalent of a business computer. Code-named Agora -- a word familiar to crossword puzzlers (clue: ancient Greek marketplace) -- HP's prognosticative PC is a combo of hardware and software that the company expects will become a reality, in total or in part, sometime in 2004.

The meetings unveiled the design ideas to a limited audience, partly to build a bit of buzz for the effort but also to get feedback. During the presentation, HP used a short video depicting a fictional case study to illustrate the utility of its design as well as its vision of where business computing will be in a couple of years. The video showed how new tools helped a business avoid disaster after losing a key supplier on the eve of a major product rollout. The movie was pretty hokey -- everyone involved in the production should feel free to make other plans for Academy Awards night -- but it made its point. It showed how, in the not-so-distant future, a fully collaborative conference -- complete with video and document sharing -- can be just a click or two away, providing IP-based communications are leveraged just so.

While HP can certainly supply the hardware -- including a variety of cameras and computing devices -- the company is working closely with Microsoft on the software side of things. The goal is to make real-time communications cheap and far-reaching by piggybacking on the Internet, and as easy as an instant messaging session. In short, take away some of the communications barriers, and business can move faster and work more efficiently.

The communications and collaboration part of HP's vision doesn't really stretch the bounds of imagination all that much. The foundation on which these futuristic apps are based, and many of the tools it will require, exist in one form or another today. But the present state of the art is still a bit too rudimentary for the comprehensive, instantaneous communications this vision promises. So while HP and Microsoft might not have to build all the parts from scratch, the bits and pieces lying around today will have to be refined and rejiggered to fit together much more seamlessly.

The hardware side of Agora is -- at least as it stands now -- far less impressive. Prototype units had a good-sized flat panel screen mounted atop a unit with modular interfaces for peripherals such as DVD/CD drives, speakers, and so forth, connected to a PC tucked under the table. With its round speakers bulging upward from the base, the prototype looked a little like a Kermit peering out from under the screen. Cables from the base ran down to one of HP's current slim desktop boxes. Eventually, HP hopes to reduce the number of wires to just one or two.

HP takes Agora's modularity seriously, using standard interfaces such as MultiBay that let you interchange a variety of drives -- hard disks, CD-ROM/RW, and DVD -- in the same slot. In fact, HP sees that kind of swappability for all of Angora's peripherals, so you can use whatever devices you favour -- assuming, of course, those devices also hew to the same industry interface standards that Agora will promote. USB sockets and other peripheral plugs are all conveniently positioned so it's easy to pop in a device like a memory stick without having to dive under your desk, bang your head, and see how infrequently your office floor is vacuumed. Agora's modularity extends even to the PC you plug into the whole deal -- that's up to you, too, again as long as it supports all the features that HP's vision will require.

What struck me as odd is, well, how downright conventional Agora is. Sure, it looks a little cooler that the typical bulky, beige boxes under most office desks. It is a vision that is supposed to become a reality in a little more than a year, so I wouldn't expect it to be the stuff of science fiction -- you know, contact lens 3D screens, memory embedded in your brain, and so forth. But still, it just seemed so "now". Just the notion of having a machine that remains rooted to an office desk is almost quaint, especially in the context of the growing awareness that our increasingly mobile workforce needs computing that is equally at ease on the road or on home turf. And while you swap just about everything in and out of Agora, you can't take the computer with you. A more realistic future
I think a more realistic view of the future desktop PC -- and the not-so-distant future, in fact -- is represented by IBM's MetaPad design. The MetaPad prototype is a compact computer core; at 3 by 5 inches, it's about the size of PDA, albeit at 9 ounces, a heavy one. You can insert the MetaPad into a variety of devices, depending on your need. For example, for the most mobility, you can slip it into a sleeve and use it as PDA; if you need more functionality, but still need to move, you can insert it into a notebook-like shell. When you get back to the office, just slip the core into your desktop base station and you have access to all the data you worked with while on the road. So when IBM peers into the computing tea leaves, it sees the PDA as the notebook as the desktop. OQO and Antelope Technologies liked the idea so much that they licensed the technology from IBM to produce their own versions of the MetaPad. It makes a lot more sense to me than Agora, which, at best, merely nudges technology ahead a bit, and doesn't seem to acknowledge the way we really work. But I'm not naïve. HP sells lots and lots of desktop PCs, notebooks, and PDAs. And I'm sure they'd be quite happy continuing to do so. A product that can cut across all three categories and effectively eliminate two of them (to some degree) probably isn't a very inviting proposition for HP. Maybe IBM can dabble in this area a little less self-consciously because it doesn't make PDAs, and while it still makes PCs, it would probably just as soon leave that business behind -- or transform it into a purveyor of MetaPad peripherals. Agora is a good idea -- pervasive communications and hardware modularity are hard to argue with, but HP needs to buff up its crystal ball a bit and come up with something a bit more compelling -- and futuristic. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.

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