Dell, Intel and their partners announced this week new technologies that represent major leaps forward for mobility. The companies seem to have discovered the secret to making such bold leaps: Cut Microsoft out of the deal.
One technology involves enabling users to gain instant access to a laptop's e-mail, browser and other basic functionality -- without booting Windows at all.
The second technology enables an Internet-based message to wake a Windows PC from sleep mode. It's useful both for VoIP applications and for anyone away from their PC who wants remote access.
These new technologies are perfect metaphors for what's happening in the industry. In both cases, Windows is asleep while Microsoft's own partners give users what they really want.
Let's have a look at the new technologies.
Dell Latitude ON
Dell announced this week a new feature called Latitude ON that enables the use of e-mail, Web surfing, basic PIM functionality and document reading -- all without booting Windows. The idea is to enable basic use without having to wait for the main OS to boot, and also to extend battery life.
A more accurate name than "Latitude ON" would have been "Windows OFF."
The codename was "BlackTop," a combination of "BlackBerry" and "laptop." The original aim of the project was to give users the same basic functionality of a BlackBerry using their laptops' full-size keyboard and screen.
What Dell is really doing here is building the equivalent of a secondary ASUS Eee PC into a full-featured, full-size laptop. The Latitude ON feature uses a low-power Intel Arm processor (just like the new Eee PCs), flash storage and Linux (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10) separate from the laptop's main CPU, hard drive and Windows OS. But unlike a subnotebook, the Latitude ON system won't allow you to install applications. It's essentially a "cloud computing" device that depends on the Internet for much of its functionality.
As far as I can tell, none of the applications are made by Microsoft. ON's custom Web browser is based on Firefox. E-mail, "diary" and contacts are, of course, non-Microsoft applications. But some Microsoft data types are supported in one way or another. The system, for example, includes viewers for Microsoft Office documents (as well as for Adobe PDF documents). The built-in organizer grabs the 100 most recent Outlook e-mail messages from the laptop's cache and displays them.
If you use only the Latitude ON system, battery life lasts not hours but days, according to Dell.
ON is expected to hit in two months for just some of Dell's laptops.
From a Microsoft perspective, Latitude ON represents a debacle comparable to the UMPC disaster. Microsoft led a big push to drive sales of Vista -based Ultra-Mobile PCs, all of which failed catastrophically in the market, rejected by users in favor of first Linux-, then XP-based subnotebooks.
Now, it's happening again. Remember Windows Vista Sideshow? The feature was part of a broader effort by Microsoft to provide basic functionality on laptops while the main Windows OS was in sleep mode. A tiny screen on the lid would display the UI. Obviously that failed, and now partner Dell is delivering roughly similar but vastly superior functionality using Linux and other non-Microsoft software.