2 min read

Confusion over concept PCs

Prototype or futuristic laptops may look similar to toy computers or cellphones

Concept PCs are fun. Never mind that today’s PCs look much more like the PCs of 10 years ago than like any of the concept PCs of the mid-1990s. The concept machines are still interesting to look at, and we can always hope some of the best ideas they embody will find their way into real machines some day.

If one feature of any futuristic prototype I saw at the Intel Developers Forum in early March ever makes it into a real product, I hope it’s the double-jointed, extensible screen on a concept notebook.

The screen opens just like any other notebook screen. But then it slides upward, telescoping on an arm that stays connected at the back of the notebook. That’s handy in itself to bring the screen up so you’re not looking down at it. The best part, though, is that once the screen is raised to the top of this arm, you can bend the joint where arm meets screen as well as the one where arm meets notebook. That brings the bottom of the screen forward, overhanging the keyboard.

Why would you care? You wouldn’t ask if you’d spent five hours of the day before seeing this machine in an Air Canada economy seat behind someone who put her seat back as far as it would go immediately after takeoff and left it there until a flight attendant asked her to straighten it as the plane dropped into San Francisco.

Could have used it
If I’d had that prototype lap-top, I could have worked on the flight.

Of course, if I’d had one of the Ultra Mobile PC prototypes that Intel also showed — and that Microsoft announced the same week to end speculation about its “Origami” product — I could also have used it on the plane, though I doubt it would do for serious writing.

The Ultra Mobile prototypes are about the size of hardcover books. There’s a screen on one side. Some models use touch screens and pen input; with some you can twist the bottom half of the unit – as if you were turning chapters six through 10 at right angles to chapters one through five – revealing a tiny keyboard. Tiny is the word. It looks as if it belongs on a toy computer for very small children. The buttons are about the size of those on a cellphone.

But Intel and Microsoft see the Ultra Mobile PC more as a consumer electronics device than a business and professional computer. In showing it off at IDF, Sean Maloney, executive vice-president and general manager of Intel’s mobility group, described it as fitting between personal digital assistants and full-fledged notebooks.

Maloney had another neat gadget to wave around — a wireless radio combining Wi-Fi and WIMAX. He predicted this dual-mode radio, which he said is the first such device, is the first step toward the Wi-Fi standard merging with the longer-distance WiMAX.

Intel is doing a lot of interesting things. Maybe too many — Jim McGregor, editor of the respected Microprocessor Report newsletter, suggested to me that maybe the company needs to focus more on its core computing and communications businesses.

The company is still defining its direction under new boss Paul Otellini. I hope that direction eventually produces a notebook that fits better behind fully reclined airplane seats.