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Desktops

Microsoft, HP set out on road to Athens

The companies offer an early look at their latest concept for business PCs right before the prototype is unveiled at the software maker's WinHEC gathering.

Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard offered an early look at their latest concept for business PCs on the eve of its unveiling.

The companies on Monday night released information on Athens, a new prototype desktop PC designed to handle business communications, ahead of the start of Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC).

As previously reported, Microsoft and HP crafted Athens as a streamlined prototype that puts the PC in the role of business communications hub.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates plans to officially introduce the prototype when he kicks off the WinHEC show with a keynote speech Tuesday morning.

Athens, which resembles Apple Computer's Cube desktop and is based on an earlier concept called Agora, is a single console that can handle telephone calls, voice mail, video streams and text messages. PC manufacturers and information technology departments typically graft different software and hardware together in a bundle. The Athens prototype attempts to show what a PC would look like if it came from the factory with all those features already in place.

The machine includes a videoconferencing system with a digital camera and can tap into telephone systems to handle calls and access voice mail. Athens also can connect to systems that use ordinary telephone PBXs, or private branch exchanges, the pieces of traditional calling equipment that connect most phones to networks. Engineers are working on a voice over IP (Internet Protocol) connection, said Byron Sands, director of advanced technology for HP's personal systems group.

Athens' 23-inch, high-resolution flat-panel display is larger than most desktop displays, allowing more information to be shown at one time. HP and Microsoft expect people will use the extra space to better arrange the various windows--such as e-mail, word-processing documents and Web browsers--that populate their desktop, Sands said.

The bezel, or the front part of the plastic cabinet surrounding the display, includes a series of color-coded indicator lights for e-mail, voice mail and pending videoconferencing systems. The keyboard has a set of navigation keys that will control a video or an audio track and several buttons that allow people to answer phone calls or check voice mail. The prototype also includes a wireless phone handset and a headset.

HP says that Athens shows promise for the business world but is still just a concept. And, similar to concept cars at auto shows, there is still a lot of work to be done before it hits the market.

"At this point, it is definitely a prototype to show what we can do in this area," Sands said.

However, HP is reasonably confident that when it does enter the market, Athens will catch on, he said. "Our expectation is that this (type of PC) will be very prevalent in corporate America."

Some analysts, though, are less confident about those prospects.

"It sounds like there's a potential advantage," said Roger Kay, an analyst with IDC. "But it's more of an incremental advance. I don't know a lot of people that are using videoconferencing in a corporate setting...and individual videoconferencing hasn't caught on yet."

PCs similar to Athens, and likely based on Microsoft's forthcoming Longhorn operating system, won't make their debut until next year, Sands said.

However, an HP representative said some elements based on Athens' design may show up in future HP business desktops sooner.