Microsoft nonchalant about Phoenix assault on Windows

Phoenix claims new app platform will solve problems endemic to Windows

BIOS maker Phoenix Technologies' plans to market a new application platform the company claims will solve a number of problems endemic to Microsoft's Windows platform might be taken as a provocative gesture at their longtime partner. But Redmond's immediate reaction was nonchalant.

At the beginning of this week the software maker announced Hyperspace, a Linux-based virtualization platform that will let OEMs bundle cut-down versions of popular open-source software that end users will be able to access instantly, even without booting Windows.

"We call this embedded simplicity, or PC 3.0," said Woody Hobbs, CEO of Phoenix in an interview.

Phoenix has for many years been the leading maker of BIOS, which enables a PC's Windows operating system to communicate with the hardware. But BIOS is being slowly supplanted by a newer technology called Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI).

Phoenix says Hyperspace will let laptop computer makers offer a customized menu of applications tailored to specific customer needs. For instance, a PC maker could use Hyperspace to customize units with software and services tailored to the health care industry. That could help them sell notebook PCs in that vertical market for a higher price, as well as improve the user experience by giving them faster access to key applications.

Right now, laptop users need to either boot Windows -- often a multi-minute process -- or wake up their computer from standby mode, an option that still works imperfectly for many computers.

Phoenix also claims that software run in Hyperspace will consume fewer system resources, and hence less battery life, as well as be more secure from hackers.

Phoenix has a posse

The company says it is already working with some PC and software vendors, though it declined to disclose names. But in a conference call hosted by Phoenix after its initial announcement, executives from Lenovo Group (maker of the ThinkPad) and security software vendor McAfee both joined the call to express their support for Phoenix's vision.

"There are quite a few folks poking at this space," said Peter Hortensius, Lenovo's senior vice-president in charge of its laptop business. Examples ripped from the headlines Google Inc.'s plans to help make smartphones more PC-like, as well as small, cheap notebooks such as the One Laptop Per Child and Asus' EEE. "Phoenix is one of the most innovative."

Hobbs was not shy in voicing his belief that Microsoft's continual adding of new features to Windows "is going down a failed path. They're just putting too much on the back of Windows, which the architecture can't support."

While Hyperspace would be unlikely to persuade laptop makers to completely dump Windows, Microsoft is nevertheless unlikely to be pleased by any apparent loosening of its grip on the PC market, especially by a Linux-based contender.

Microsoft declined to comment directly on Hyperspace. But on the issue of slow Windows boot-ups, it said this is "more impacted by what applications you have installed and whether they are part and parcel of the start-up process or not on your PC. Some people want their applications to be ready to go when they boot up; but what that means is often a trade off in terms of boot up performance."

Phoenix' Hobbs also said that Microsoft's attempt to solve the boot-up time problem, called Vista SideShow, was inferior to Hyperspace.

SideShow enables small programs called "gadgets" to display data downloaded from applications the last time Windows was accessed on a small LCD screen on the outside of notebook case, for example.

In the statement, Microsoft said that "SideShow is doing well, and there are a variety of vendors building gadgets including Toshiba, LG, Asus, and Fujitsu."

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Eric Lai

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