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 voice-recognition software.
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, said analysts.
"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 most sense.
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, he said.
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.