PC BIOS maker Phoenix on Tuesday is announcing its own operating system, of a sort: Hyperspace, a "pre-boot" environment that allows you to get your PC up and on the Web in seconds, instead of the minutes it will take you to power up and launch a browser with a standard full-featured operating system like Windows or the OS X. Hyperspace is also said to take much less power than a standard OS, and to allow resuming from standby nearly instantly.
This product is a natural for Phoenix. CEO Woody Hobbs told me he sees it as the company's "second act." Phoenix is the No. 1 BIOS supplier in the personal computer market, with about 50 percent share, Hobbs told me. But declining computer prices are hitting margins for system software licenses, and Phoenix needs a new product line to maintain growth.
Although most of the Phoenix's products are used to run Windows, as Hobbs says, "80 percent of the time, you really don't need it." He wants PCs, portables especially, to be like smartphones: instant-on, always on the network, and with enough battery life to get you through a full day and then some. "People don't expect that from a PC, but they should," he said.
The challenge is that users, I believe, don't want a second operating system. They want the operating system that all their apps (and browser plug-ins) are on to work when they need it. And putting two OSes in one system means that users have to learn to use two different systems. Most will simply deal with their main OS and ignore the stripped-down, occasional-use secondary system. What's worse, most pre-boot operating systems can't access or write to the data stored under the main OS on their computer.
Users willing to switch between operating systems as their needs dictate will probably enjoy the Hyperspace product, which, as our reviewer Dan Ackerman noted, really does let you get online incredibly fast. He also liked that when you're watching a YouTube video on the laptop he had the system on, and you close the lid to shut it down, when you open it up again it starts playing the video from where you stopped, almost instantly.
When Hyperspace is installed on a standard laptop, users can switch between the Linux-based lightweight OS and Windows. HyperSpace will also be available as a standalone OS for low-power Netbook computers. In that configuration the product will be competing against the Linux OSes on devices like the eeePC. Future competition may also come from Google, which is rumored to be developing Android for ultra-small laptops. And DeviceVM makes a pre-boot OS called Splashtop that is appearing on some Asus products.
There is potential that these new operating environments will have their own application stores, to make buying and installing new apps easier for users. Apple has validated the concept of the captive application directory and marketplace, and it's likely that every new OS for smartphones and for netbooks will have its own store. What is not clear is how many developers will bother to write apps for these environments.
Unlike the competitive Splashtop pre-boot environment, which is only available built into certain hardware, HyperSpace will be sold to consumers for either $59.95 a year (for newer computers with built-in support for virtualization) or $39.95 a year. The company is also working on deals to get the HyperSpace product pre-installed on laptops. They've announced that Asus (also a DeviceVM customer) is a partner, as well as some other smaller vendors. Our labs received two Lenovo laptops with HyperSpace software on them, but Phoenix has not announced partnerships with that company.