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Notebooks to dial up built-in phones

Manufacturers will soon start selling notebooks that feature integrated Voice over Internet Protocol; built-in cell phone capabilities are expected to follow.

SAN FRANCISCO--Toward the end of the year, more people will be talking to their notebooks.

Manufacturers plan to start selling notebooks with integrated Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) this year and plan later to offer notebooks with built-in cell phone capabilities, Anand Chandrasekher, vice president and general manager of the Intel Mobile Platforms Group, said in an interview.

The Intel Developer Forum is taking place this week in San Francisco.

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Although the upcoming notebooks won't soon threaten the handset industry, these products could boost the popularity of VoIP, especially with overseas business travelers. Consumers can make VoIP calls on notebooks now, but they generally have to configure the systems themselves.

"It saves a ton of money," Chandrasekher said. "The integration of telephony is going to happen."

The PC-with-a-phone has been tried before, but mostly for comic effect. Compaq Computer, for instance, tried to popularize the concept in the mid-1990s by offering a PC with home phone headset jutting from the side. Intel, mostly in vain, attempted to turn videoconferencing into a big market around the same time.

Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report asserts that since the target consumers for the upcoming devices typically already own cell phones, the potential market is small.

Current circumstances, though, may improve the chances for these devices. For one thing, an infrastructure for making largely free calls over the Internet now exists. The technology is also more smoothly blended into the computer than it was previously.

On a related note, Intel also showed off a notebook with a secondary screen to let people review incoming e-mail, voice messages and calendar information while the notebook remains in the sleep state. Thematically, these additional communications features are termed Extended Mobile Access (EMA).

EMA notebooks will also begin to appear later this year, and some will also inevitably have VoIP connections. Later versions of EMA modules may enable instant messages and voice calling.

"It's Outlook, Exchange and voice mail," said Chandrasekher, who added that EMA abilities can cut power consumption because the main screen, which consumes an inordinate amount of notebook energy, never comes on.

Intel first began to tinker with EMA ideas in 2001. Later, it incorporated the functionality into a prototype notebook called Newport.

During this time, Intel also licensed underlying software for the EMA experience to Insyte, a BIOS developer, which in turn developed a product it now sells.

In the end, some notebooks will closely follow the Newport design, while others will feature original designs but include the telephony features based around the software from Insyte.

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So far, only China's Lenovo, formerly known as Legend, has said it will come out with an EMA-themed notebook. But others will follow.

"A bunch of companies are going to do it," he said. "There will be several substantiations over time."

The first notebooks will tout Wi-Fi VoIP capabilities. Intel, however, is already working with carriers and manufacturers to come out with versions that will include cellular. The notebook would then be sold with a service package.

Still, these notebooks could face an uphill battle when it comes to acceptance.

"If anything, there is a styling interest in it," said Richard Doherty, principal analyst at the Envisioneering Group. "It may just be a fashion niche."

On other notebook issues, Chandrasekher said that Dothan, a version of the Pentium M coming in the second quarter, will provide around a 15 percent boost in performance over the current Pentium M at the same speeds. The boost comes from a 2MB cache--twice as large as the existing cache--and various micro-architecture tweaks. The actual performance gap, though, will be larger because Dothan will run at faster speeds and include a 533MHz system bus, faster than the 400MHz bus on current chips.

Dothan will not feature HyperThreading, the desktop and server technology that lets a processor perform two or more tasks at once. However, Chandrasekher strongly indicated that such a feature will appear in notebooks in 2006. Intel is currently examining how much energy it would consume compared to the performance it adds.

Like the Pentium M, Dothan notebooks will mostly include Intel's Centrino wireless bundle. More than 50 percent of Pentium M notebooks now come with Centrino and the association is increasing.

Chandrasekher said notebook chips will likely begin to be able to handle handle 32-bit and 64-bit code when Microsoft's Longhorn appears. The Longhorn operating system is expected in 2006.