March 28, 2001 4:00 AM PST

Bright future for notebooks, pagers

Tired of wearing an e-mail pager on your belt? Don't worry, one day it will sit inside your notebook.

Notebook manufacturers are tinkering with ways to incorporate two-way messaging that works continuously while the laptops are in a battery-conserving sleep state. With an interactive pager built in, notebook owners would be able to exchange e-mail and potentially receive news updates or limited Web information without quickly draining the battery.

It won't happen this year, but experiments are under way that could lead to these products being available in the near future.

"Your pager function will go into your notebook," predicted Don MacDonald, marketing director for Intel's mobile product divisions. Part of the draw for consumers will be cost, he added. "It's cheaper if you (only) have two devices: your notebook and your phone."

This prospective feature is part and parcel of the growing popularity of notebooks. Improved processor performance and price reductions are fueling a transition from desktop computers to notebooks. Although desktop sales are limping, some manufacturers are stating that notebook sales remain strong.

Two-way paging and other features, however, sap battery power.

Keeping a notebook on at all times is one of the chief design problems in adding the new features, said Hilary Glann, marketing manager for the mobile computing division at Hewlett-Packard.

As a result, designers are trying to get these features to run while notebooks are in the sleep state. During the sleep state, a limited amount of current flows through notebooks as a means of life support, but all major applications cease functioning, which extends battery life.

Glann said the new features are largely in the "chattering stage," although other sources have said that engineers are toying with prototypes.

"We are still in the chattering stage about integrating pager-type functionality, but we are obviously tracking usage patterns and user trends to figure out what folks really want in their next-generation notebooks," she added.

With a messaging program, the notebook would effectively remain dormant until a message is sent from the outside world. Then, a light integrated into the notebook chassis could flash, Glann said. Messages could appear in a small "screen within a screen" window that wouldn't require the entire panel to be lit.

Other related innovations follow the same principle of discovering ways of saving battery power.

Casio will release a Transmeta-based notebook in April that runs Windows, as well as a version of Linux for running MP3 files. By running the MP3 player on Linux, people can avoid the lengthy Windows boot-up cycle as well as conserve on battery power.

Major manufacturers are also making it easier for consumers to play audio CDs during a notebook's sleep state, said Alan Promisel, an analyst at IDC. The minimum amount of software and hardware is activated to let MP3 files or discs play.

The history of convergence products, however, is not promising. Consumers rejected PC-TVs and earlier versions of PCs that allowed people to make phone calls.

Nonetheless, consumers have shown an inclination for incorporating Internet connectivity into anything that moves. Wireless communication is becoming a must-have feature for handheld computers. And Internet-enabled cell phones have become a hit it in Japan.

Notebooks will begin to join the wireless fray in real numbers later this year and next year as the infrastructure for 802.11b and Bluetooth becomes pervasive. With these wireless technologies, notebook owners will be able to log into standard corporate networks wirelessly with relative ease.

With such technologies in place, the debate will then center on how many wireless devices the average person will actually want.

"Are we going to be in a multi-device world or a single-device world?" Glann asked.

Because of their small keyboards, handheld computers are suited for receiving e-mails, but not necessarily sending them, she asserted.

Handheld designers, by contrast, cast a skeptical eye at notebook integration. A huge part of the appeal of handheld computers or the BlackBerry two-way e-mail pager from Research In Motion is related to convenience.

"The one thing about e-mail is that it is frequent and intermittent," said Mark Guibert, director of marketing at Research In Motion. People may not want to keep their notebooks on all the time and have already become adapted to smaller devices.

"If your application is e-mail, then what you want is the ability to unobtrusively monitor that e-mail," he said.

MacDonald countered by noting that two-way pagers could be fairly cheaply incorporated into notebooks. The BlackBerry pagers, for instance, use a 386--the same chip Intel used to put into notebooks.

In the end, coexistence might be the logical result. Notebooks with integrated pagers won't likely replace wireless gadgets, Promisel predicted, but consumers who must take notebooks on business anyway might start using these features.

"Part of this is probably that personal computer companies are trying to get back anything they have lost to the PDA market," Promisel said. "It is all about wireless connectivity. If you can connect to your pager with document production, why not go for it."

 

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