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Microsoft and HP put comms at heart of PC prototype

Looks a bit like something Apple came up with...
Written by John G. Spooner, Contributor

Looks a bit like something Apple came up with...

Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have offered businesses an early look at their latest concept for business PCs on the eve of its unveiling. The companies on Monday night released information on Athens, a new prototype desktop PC designed to handle business communications, ahead of the start of Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in the US. Microsoft and HP crafted Athens as a streamlined prototype that puts the PC in the role of business communications hub. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates plans to officially introduce the prototype when he kicks off the WinHEC show with a keynote speech on Tuesday morning. Athens, which resembles Apple Computer's Cube desktop and is based on an earlier concept called Agora, is a single console that can handle telephone calls, voice mail, video streams and text messages. PC manufacturers and information technology departments typically graft different software and hardware together in a bundle. The Athens prototype attempts to show what a PC would look like if it came from the factory with all those features already in place. The machine includes a video conferencing system with a digital camera and has the ability to tap into telephone systems to handle calls and access voice mail. Athens can also connect to systems that use plain old telephone systems or PBXs. Engineers are working on a voice over IP (Internet Protocol) connection, said Byron Sands, director of advanced technology for HP's personal systems group. Athens' 23-inch, high-resolution flat-panel display is larger than most desktop displays, allowing more information to be shown simultaneously. HP and Microsoft expect people will use the extra space to better arrange the various windows - such as email, word-processing documents and web browsers - that populate their desktop, Sands said. The bezel, or the front part of the plastic cabinet surrounding the display, includes a series of colour-coded indicator lights for email, voice mail and pending video conferencing systems. The keyboard has a set of navigation keys that will control a video or an audio track and several buttons that allow people to answer phone calls or check voice mail. The prototype also includes a wireless phone handset and a headset. HP says Athens is showing promise for the business world, but it's still just a concept. And, similar to concept cars at auto shows, there is still a lot of work to be done before it hits the market. "At this point, it is definitely a prototype to show what we can do in this area," Sands said. However, HP is reasonably confident that when it does enter the market, Athens will catch on, he said. "Our expectation is that this (type of PC) will be very prevalent." Some analysts, though, are somewhat less confident. "It sounds like there's a potential advantage," said Roger Kay, an analyst with IDC. "But it's more of an incremental advance. I don't know a lot of people that are using video conferencing in a corporate setting... and individual video conferencing hasn't caught on yet." PCs similar to Athens, and likely based on Microsoft's forthcoming Longhorn operating system, won't make their debut until next year, Sands said. However, an HP representative said some elements based on Athens' design may show up in future HP business desktops sooner. John G. Spooner writes for News.com
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