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On the road to managed laptops

An industry group will deliver a draft specification outlining a standardized way for corporations to manage notebook PCs.

    An industry group next week will deliver a draft specification outlining a standardized way for corporations to manage notebook PCs.

    With notebooks increasingly standing in for desktop computers both on the road and in the office, businesses are coming to expect the same kinds of features in their mobile systems as in the ubiquitous desktop PC. Just as trends such as DVD drives and multimedia MMX move from the desk to the briefcase, so will management technology.

    The recently introduced NetPC specification has become a virtual poster boy for easing PC management and decreasing cost of desktop maintenance--two persistent issues in the hardware industry. The Desktop Management Task Force, which developed the standard used in the NetPC and new "managed" PCs, has formed a group targeting mobile computers just for this purpose: the Mobile Working Committee.

    The committee has recently completed an initial version of the specification and intends to deliver the document this month, according to committee chair Rafael Miranda. The document will describe the specifications that allows notebooks to talk to the central servers that control management of the notebooks.

    The document will also describe the specifications used to create Management Information File Format, or "MIFF" files, that allow computers to talk to the management servers.

    By this fall, top-tier vendors such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, Compaq Computer, and Toshiba will be incorporating managment features into their notebook computers. Many already are quietly adding tools for remote troubleshooting and desktop management.

    Compaq, for one, announced this week a new version of its Armada laptop featuring what it terms "Intelligent Manageability" software, allowing administrators to track and manage laptop inventory over their networks.

    Most of the features are software-based, such as the Toptools software included with Hewlett-Packard's laptops. But by this year, hardware to increase manageability, such as thermal detectors to watch for system problems, will become standard issue on top-ranked business laptops.

    Keeping up with desktops might only be one reason notebook PCs get management features; in the end, notebooks probably need such systems more than other computers, according to Robert Levin of NEC's mobile products division. Because of the way notebooks are tightly built internally, having one part fail means the entire unit must be sent in for repair.

    If an employee is out on the road when the laptop fails, it becomes a thorny PC management problem. Addressing this will fall to the companies implementing management software based on specifications such as those set by the Mobile Working Committee.

    Easing the problem of tracking computer inventory is another force pushing for management solutions, noted Tuan Tran, HP's mobile platforms manager. With up to 30 percent of some company computers now laptops, keeping track of which and how many systems are in use can be difficult.

    Adding manageabilty to notebooks won't be as simple as installing the software used on desktops, however. Special problems arise because of the fact that laptops aren't always connected to their home networks the way desktop units are.

    Although the new specifications for laptop management will aid manufacturers in creating the first generation of cross-compatible, management-capable laptops, they're by no means the last word. The committee intends to continue to update and expand the standard as necessary.