Ultra personal computing and fighting spam

This week marked the second running of CeBIT-America at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. CeBIT-America is the kissing cousin of CeBIT, an event held annually in Germany that is the largest tech trade show in the world.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

This week marked the second running of CeBIT-America at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. CeBIT-America is the kissing cousin of CeBIT, an event held annually in Germany that is the largest tech trade show in the world. Unfortunately, CeBIT-America isn't repeating the success of its German counterpart. The show was so much of a snoozer that I cut the length of my planned stay in half (from two days to one). In fact, the show was so small that the Javits Center was able to host another show: a situation that produced enough confusion in the building that the cameraman for our video segments checked into the wrong event. However, at least one exhibitor at the event was generating some buzz.

In what could be another attempt to redefine the idea of mobility and handheld computing, a small start-up founded by two engineers who earned their mobility stripes while working on notebook offerings from Apple and IBM, is due to release a collapsible PDA-sized system that runs Windows XP. The device has 20 GB of storage and 256 MB of RAM, and will initially be offered to customers at close to $2,000--a price tag normally reserved for mid-to high-end range notebook systems. Shipping is slated for July.

Jonathan Betts-LaCroix, CTO of OQO, showed off the tiny business-targeted PC in private briefings during CeBIT and explained why he felt the cost of the system could be offset by savings in software.


When collapsed, the OQO uPC (ultra personal computer) can fit in a shirt pocket. It could be described as half-BlackBerry/half-PC. The device (see photo) is 4.9-inches long, 3.4-inches wide, less than an inch thick and weighs 14 ounces. It uses a TrackPoint pointing device (like the IBM ThinkPad) and has a thumb board, which is hidden from view when the 800-by-480 color display slides over it (thus putting the uPC into its collapsed position).

Inside, the device is powered by a 1-GHz Transmeta (Intel-compatible) processor, has both 802.11b and Bluetooth wireless connectivity, USB and Firewire connectors, and a removable battery that Betts-LaCroix said will last about three hours with the wireless radios in use. The uPC also comes with a special docking station/cable that supports the use of a full-size keyboard, display and mouse so that it can serve as a desktop replacement or a PowerPoint driver for people that make a lot of presentations on the road.

Indeed, I was impressed after handling the device to get a feel for all of the technology packed into a PDA-sized package. But for me, the $2,000 price tag was still an issue. Given the availability of so many handhelds, smartphones, and capable sub-$1,000 notebook computers, what would compel enterprises to invest in a $2,000 PC/handheld hybrid with a thumb board? After all, even though a thumb board is the best input device for a handheld device of this size in most mobile situations, there are many situations (like doing e-mail on a plane) where a notebook is more appropriate to the task.

According to Betts-LaCroix, the main reason businesses should be drawn to the uPC is application compatibility. Not only can users have a duplicate of their desktop environment (and favorite applications) in a PDA-sized device, there's also no need to re-code custom-built applications for a different platform like PocketPC or the PalmOS. This is precisely the problem I'm facing as I look to redeploy some custom built applications for Microsoft Outlook on a handheld. First, I have to port the Visual Basic-developed apps to VB.NET. Then, I have to scale the application down to work on .Net Compact for PocketPC, a framework which is a subset of what's available on .Net for Windows XP. The result will be two different code-bases--one for Windows XP and one for PocketPC-that could lead to a maintenance nightmare, which a device like the uPC could make go away.

The uPC isn't going to be alone in pursuing this hybrid handheld/notebook space. Paul Allen, the billionaire Microsoft founder and investor, has developed the FlipStart personal computer, which is aimed at a broader market. He describes the device as having the accessibility of other devices combined with the full power of a PC that could fit in a pocket or a purse.

The Windows XP-based device weighs less than one pound, and has a 1GHz Transmeta processor, 256 MB system RAM, 30 GB hard drive, 5.6-inch HDTV-quality display. It includes a camera, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless, microphone, speaker, and navigation aids, including a thumb board, touchpad, optional touch screen and mouse buttons. Allen has said that the FlipStart will begin shipping at the end of this year, priced between $1,200 and $1,500.

Progress in the anti-spam war
It was just last week when news surfaced that on the eve of its submitting its CallerID anti-spam specification to the IETF for consideration as a standard, Microsoft was in discussions with Meng Weng Wong, the author of the strikingly similar anti-spam specification known as Sender Policy Framework (SPF), exploring the possibility of merging the two specifications.

Already that week, Yahoo had submitted its own anti-spam specification (DomainKeys) to the IETF for consideration as a standard as well. But whereas DomainKeys is somewhat complementary to CallerID and SPF, the latter two specifications were seen as competitive.

According to Sean Sundwall, spokesperson for Microsoft's Anti-Spam Technology and Strategy Group, the chances of the two specs merging looked good, and so it came to pass this week when Wong and Microsoft released news that SPF and CallerID would indeed merge.

As I have long maintained, nothing will put a dent in spam like a widely supported interoperable anti-spam standard. Seeing Microsoft and Yahoo contribute their intellectual property to a standards body in the same week was certainly uplifting. Wong had already submitted SPF to the IETF for consideration. But now that SPF and CallerID will no longer be competing for the anti-spam spotlight, the anti-spam frontier has become even more simplified to the benefit of Internet users. The next step is for Microsoft and Wong to submit a merged proposal to the IETF next month. Following that step, support for the merged specification will have to work its way into various Internet inbox services and e-mail server technologies such as Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes. Eventually, the cryptographic approach used by DomainKeys can be used to bolster the anti-spam standards. "DomainKeys is the long-term approach; SPF is the short-term approach," Wong said. "If all goes well, [DomainKeys and SPF/CallerID] will meet in the middle and squash spammers like a bug."

You can write to me at david.berlind@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check the archives.

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