'Vista' PC: Compaq's brave new world

Compaq Computer is set to clean the slate next week -- introducing a new legacy-free PC for corporate customers

The Houston, Texas, PC maker, which is rolling out the new desktop in the hope of curbing a slowdown in corporate PC sales, will offer new services, including Internet access, with the legacy-free computers.

While PCs have added new technologies over the past few years, hardly any of them have eliminated support for older technologies at the same time. As a result most PCs have several unused ports and buses, such as the 16-bit ISA bus. By doing away with older technologies, PC makers and Intel hope legacy-free PCs will translate into desktops that are cheaper to buy, easier for employees to use and easier for IT managers to maintain.

Analysts agree that legacy free is the way to go. "I think it's good to be legacy free. I think things like ISA are an abomination, so why not get rid of them. Why not standardize on USB?" said Roger Kay, manager of International Data Corporation's Desktop PC Practice in Framingham, Mass.

Kay was unable to speak directly to Compaq's forthcoming product. He said, however, that going legacy free marks a shift in the practices of PC makers.

PC makers may have been reluctant to move customers away from older technologies, but on the other hand, Apple Computer, has shown that it can be done successfully with the iMac.

"Apple has always been very aggressive about legacy free. They've left their base behind. That's been an advantage for them, so that they can release unburdened technology," Kay said.

Compaq's new PC, to be unveiled in a New York event hosted by company president Michael Capellas, will present a new design and marketing philosophy from the company.

"You'd never recognize it as a Deskpro," said one source.

The PC, which is code-named Vista, will run various versions of Windows, including Windows 2000 when it is available, and offer the latest Intel Pentium III chips, announced earlier in the month. It will, however, also unburden users of legacy hardware. A completely legacy-free model, and lacking ISA and other technology such as PS/2 ports, will be announced at the event. At the same time, a model that offers limited support for older technologies such as ISA will also be announced. USB will be the primary method of attaching peripherals such as keyboards and a mouse, sources said.

Industry observers were critical of the approach of using the Internet as a selling point for the new PC, as large corporations generally have their own Internet access already installed. It would make more sense for a consumer or small business-oriented PC, they said, to offer Internet access. For corporations, strategy of partnering with entities such as application service providers to offer additional services to go with the new PCs makes more sense, the observers said.

Pricing on the new PC is expected to be competitive with, if not lower than, regular desktops. Compaq may also offer customers the ability to subsidize the cost of the PC with Internet access. Further details on the pricing scheme and projected ship dates for the new PC will likely be made public at the New York event. Compaq will also show off the new PC at this month's Comdex/Fall in Las Vegas. It is unclear if the company's consumer division will have access to this design or market a similar one of its own.

Compaq isn't alone in its development of a legacy free PC. Other PC makers will also demonstrate legacy free PCs at Comdex. They include Packard Bell/NEC, which will introduce a new all-in-one design legacy free PC with a small footprint.

Toshiba and several other PC makers are also working on legacy-free designs, sources said. Legacy-free PCs are driven largely by Intel, which believes that by simplifying the design of PCs and utilising USB, that PCs can be made easier to use. The company has issued guidelines for easier to use PCs, which focus on dropping legacy items such as ISA. Intel has been working with Microsoft which is also working to simplify the PC through new ease of use features being built into its Consumer Windows operating system, on some aspects of the project, known under the umbrella name Easy PC.

Advanced Micro Devices is also developing a legacy free PC strategy of its own. Announcements are expected soon on the program, which will also work to remove legacy hardware from AMD-based PCs. AMD has devised a legacy free PC design of its own, which it will license to PC makers. The design, based around an AMD K6-2 chip, offers a small form factor with the CD-ROM drive mounted vertically on its front, above a pair of USB ports.