Phoenix rises from BIOS ashes with Linux-based Virtualization

Venerable behind-the-scenes firm makes a move on next-gen functionality

Over the past quarter-century, more than a billion PCs have been produced that use Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) software from Phoenix Technologies. The BIOS provides a key interface between the hardware and the Windows operating system.

But with the BIOS business in a long-term decline, Phoenix is aiming for a rebirth as a vendor of technology that, instead of enabling Windows, starts to compete with it.

On Monday, the California-based vendor unveiled a Linux-based virtualization platform called HyperSpace.

Based on the HyperCore hypervisor developed by Phoenix and embedded within its popular BIOS, HyperSpace provides a thin software layer upon which cut-down versions of popular open-source software can be loaded instantly without the need to boot up Windows, said Phoenix CEO Woody Hobbs in a telephone interview.

"We call this embedded simplicity, or PC 3.0," Hobbs said. The goal is to allow faster access to applications such as Web browsers, e-mail programs or video players on notebooks running Windows.

Such quick-launch capability is common in smart devices such as handheld devices or smart phones, and some ultramobile devices offer similar functionality with features such as AVN Now. But PCs that now run Windows must either go through a lengthy boot process or wake up from standby mode -- still a hiccuping feature in many laptops.

Be kind to batteries

Users can easily toggle among applications running in Windows and those in HyperSpace. The difference is that applications running in HyperSpace consume fewer system resources -- and, hence, battery power -- than those running under Windows, said Hobbs.

"Windows is quite consumptive of batteries," Hobbs said, citing complaints about Vista's power management. "So the more you can stay out of Windows, the more you can extend your battery life."

HyperSpace also delivers a more locked-down system than Windows, says Hobbs, who argued that secrecy will improve security.

"By putting software in a completely unpublished environment, you'll be able to eliminate the blue pills and rootkits," he said.

Keep the customer satisfied (and profitable)

Laptop PC makers are Phoenix's target market, said Hobbs. For them, HyperSpace provides a new way to differentiate their hardware and build new revenue-generating services. For instance, a laptop vendor could use HyperSpace to create a customized laptop with applications and services aimed at certain industries or occupations -- salespeople or marketers, for example.

Or, he said, HyperSpace could deliver subscription-based access to antivirus or security software, such as Phoenix's own FailSafe technology. FailSafe can be used to track or kill lost or stolen laptops the next time they reappear on a network. Phoenix claims that because the FailSafe is based in the BIOS rather than Windows, it is harder for thieves or hackers to tamper with or turn off.

It's a case of adapt or die, or at least suffer the slings and arrows of ever-thinner margins. "[Laptop makers] have no choice. They only see the price of a regular PC getting cheaper. Meanwhile, they see the mobile carriers all making tons of money," he said.

All told, HyperSpace should enable PC makers to increase their revenue per PC by an average of US$100, according to Hobbs.

Rob Enderle, a PC analyst based in San Jose, said he thinks the strategy is sound.

Phoenix "was all over the map for the last couple of years. They're actually playing smart now," he said. But Enderle advised Phoenix to market HyperSpace heavily to business IT managers in order to stoke demand among its actual customers, the PC makers.

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Eric Lai

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