If IBM has its way, ThinkPad notebook users may be wearing their next
portable rather than lugging it around in a briefcase, which could give Big
Blue a boost in the PC market.
Small is in at IBM, which is currently testing a wearable PC based on the
ultraportable ThinkPad 560. IBM has been working on various wearable
prototypes for about the last four to 12 months, but does not expect
marketable products before late next year.
The as-yet unnamed wearable PC is an important proof-of-concept, as IBM
looks to breathe new life into its Personal Systems Group, which it recently
reorganized. The division lost
nearly $1 billion last year.
As previously reported, the
wearable PC is part of a new class of devices IBM calls EON, which stands
for "edge of the network." EON emphasizes specialized-function devices rather
than the ubiquitous one-size-fits-all approach typical of PCs.
About the size of a Sony Walkman and weighing around 1.5 pounds, the
prototype is a fully functional PC capable of running
either Windows 98 or Windows 2000 and associated software programs.
The wearable PC also sports a PC card slot and USB port for connectivity to
wireless devices, external hard drives, or a mouse, keyboard and monitor.
Users view contents on a monocle color display worn over the eye and
navigate contents either by a handheld mouse or using IBM's ViaVoice
Phil Hester, chief technology officer for IBM's Personal Systems Group,
described the wearable PC as a hybrid device "that does not compromise on
your PC applications. You can walk around with this thing attached to a
wireless network, browse the Web, talk to it, do voice navigation, email
and all that stuff."
Big Blue will introduce a wide range of experimental devices during the next
six to 12 months as it focuses on specialized appliances running Windows and
other operating systems. The wearable PC will be one of the most visible,
"IBM is potentially looking for vertical market applications to pair up
with it, so it's more of a service offering than just a product offering,"
said Technology Business Research analyst Joe Ferlazzo. But "they don't know what services yet," he added.
For now, IBM will experiment with specialized vertical markets, such as
stock trading, manufacturing and health care, where a wearable PC makes the
GE Power Systems is one early adopter, looking to outfit power station
workers with wearable PCs.
"What we're trying to do is put complicated
information about assembly diagrams, disassembly procedures, etcetera, in the
hands of someone who remotely is working on a very complicated piece of
equipment," said spokesperson Jeffrey Ignasak.
Because the power stations tend to have specialized components unique to the
facility, access to actual drawings and technical documents would be a
valuable tool, Ignasak added. "Our goal is to provide wearable PCs as a
wireless interface to the Internet, as well as voice-activated responses and
audio capture so they can take notes by speaking into the unit."
Wireless access to the Internet and corporate networks is integral to IBM's
plans for the wearable PC and other EON devices. IBM also plans to widely
incorporate Bluetooth technology in later EON devices. Bluetooth, a
technology enabling small devices to communicate without cables or wires, is
expected to make it easier for cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and similar devices to
more easily connect wirelessly to corporate networks or the Internet.
EON is also crucial for IBM to successfully jump-start its beleaguered
Personal Systems Group. "In terms of energizing the product line and growing
the business, they still have to take steps to do that," said International
Data Corp. analyst Roger Kay. "But they're beginning to develop a credible
strategy. The question is, can they stick with it." EON will be the test,
IBM's Personal Systems Group traditionally was segmented by product type,
such as ThinkPad, Nefinity servers or IBM PC. But Big Blue is beginning to
segment the group by customer types rather than technologies.
This will be essential as the group looks beyond hardware to services as a way
of generating revenue, Ferlazzo said.