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Can Longhorn improve laptops?

New OS promises to give portables additional features, from auxiliary displays to improved tablet and touch-screen abilities.

SEATTLE--Microsoft's Bill Mitchell wishes consumers were as excited about buying laptops as they are about buying cell phones.

Unfortunately, says Mitchell, head of the company's mobile PC efforts, there are good reasons 700 million cell phones were sold last year, compared with about 50 million laptops. Portable computers are too bulky, too slow and too quick to run out of juice, he told a crowd of computer makers Tuesday.

"Customers are not really getting the value out of mobile PCs that they find in mobile phones," Mitchell said during a speech at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, or WinHEC, here.

News.context

What's new:
Microsoft plans to address some common laptop shortcomings in Longhorn, the new version of Windows that's scheduled for release next year.

Bottom line:
Redmond says it has big plans for Longhorn-era laptops. When the features will make their way into beta, however, is unclear.

More stories on Longhorn

Microsoft plans to address some of these shortcomings in Longhorn, the new version of Windows that's scheduled for release next year. To address the power issue, Microsoft is pushing laptop makers to add features such as flash memory-equipped drives, reducing the number of times a computer must spin a power-hungry hard drive.

Other planned changes include the addition of a "mobility center" that will serve as a single control panel for all manner of laptop-related settings. The concept is similar to the Security Center Microsoft added to Windows XP with Service Pack 2. Microsoft showed off its ideas for the mobility center last year, but Mitchell said the idea has advanced much further.

"Mobility Center is (now) much more real," Mitchell said in an interview. "It has to be real because it has to be in the beta, right?"

Mitchell wouldn't say for certain that the laptop-related features would be in the initial beta version that ships this summer, but he did say that "the mobility group is one of the most schedule-conscious groups in the whole Windows development team."

This week Microsoft also detailed a broader effort to add touch-screen abilities to Longhorn-era laptops. Mitchell demonstrated the way that finger-based input could be added to traditional laptops as well as to Tablet PC machines that allow for stylus input.

Inspired by the clamshell
Yet another Longhorn feature was, in fact, inspired by the cell phone. For years, clamshell-style phones have had a second, smaller screen on the outside so basic information, such as a clock and caller ID, can be viewed without opening the phone. Microsoft, along with Intel, has been working to translate the same capability to the laptop.
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"Black boxes" for Windows, Longhorn for laptops, 64-bit software--and more. Click here for stories from WinHEC.

With Longhorn, Microsoft is adding support for such devices, although the approach is somewhat inelegant. Either the PC will be off, and the calendar or e-mail information on the secondary display risks being out of date, or, when accessing functions such as playing music, the laptop will be fully turned on. Down the road, Mitchell hopes to do the engineering work so information can remain updated with only needed parts of the computer being powered up. The company also hopes laptops will someday even be able to use a nearby watch or cell phone as an additional display.

On the responsiveness side, Microsoft is inching toward its goal of replicating the "instant-on" experience customers have become used to with consumer electronics. When a laptop user pushes the power button in Windows XP, it goes into a near-shutdown "hibernate" state in which all information is saved onto the hard drive. With Longhorn, the default will be to keep the same information in memory, a so-called "suspend" state that uses somewhat more battery power, but allows for quicker resume times.

IDC analyst Roger Kay noted that efforts to improve power are popping up at all levels of the PC food chain, including considerable efforts by chipmakers such as Intel and AMD. "I'd want to see a high degree of coordination with existing (efforts)," Kay said.

"Our grand goal is to provide as much feature richness as any particular customer segment wants."
--Bill Mitchell
Microsoft's mobile-PC unit

The longer-term part of Mitchell's strategy centers on enabling laptops that are physically smaller--ideally not much bigger than a cell phone.

Microsoft showed off its concept for such a computer this week, saying it hopes to see a minitablet device with a small screen, a camera, a cellular modem and all-day battery life for somewhere between $500 and $800. However, today Microsoft has only a mock-up of such a device and acknowledges that a practical device is years away.

Not all small laptops will have to wait that long, though. Mitchell said he expects to see some tablet PCs with smaller, 8-inch screens soon.

One thing that remains unclear is just how Microsoft will sell the Tablet PC OS in the Longhorn time frame. More and more, tablet features are being added to mainstream laptops, and Microsoft said the cost difference between a tablet-capable PC and a similarly equipped laptop has declined to about $100, from $250. However, computer makers currently still have to buy Microsoft's higher-priced Tablet PC edition of Windows XP in order to offer those features. Microsoft has not said how it will package Longhorn.

IDC's Kay said he anticipates that tablet features will still command a premium price in Longhorn, but he expects the added price to be less in Longhorn than it is in Windows XP. Kay noted that Microsoft has seen a significant increase in sales of Windows XP Media Center Edition since it cut the price premium on that product last fall.

It does appear that consumers may at least be able to combine the features of Microsoft's premium operating systems.

"Our grand goal is to provide as much feature richness as any particular customer segment wants," Mitchell said. "Right now we have arguably artificial separation between things."

Today, for example, consumers can buy a laptop that has either the pen-based abilities of the Tablet PC OS or one with the TV recording abilities of the Media Center OS, but not both. In Longhorn, computer makers may be able to combine the two capabilities.

"There's no reason that you shouldn't be able to do that," Mitchell said.

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