Out with the old, in with the new

At a time when the idea of "out with the old, in with the new" is getting

a lot of attention, the PC industry is creating its own version of seasonal

renewal with the selling of "legacy-free" PCs. If that sounds like a way

of forgetting the mistakes of the past and embracing the future, well that's

the idea.

Like so many other things that happen in the PC industry, Microsoft Corp.

and Intel Corp. are behind this latest effort to make PCs less costly and

burdensome to manage. The two technology titans have teamed to produce the

so-called PC99 specification, which recommends the elimination of trouble-prone

PC technologies that date to the dawn of the microcomputer era.

Getting the boot in PC99 are Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) expansion

slots (originally known as PC-Advanced Technology slots when the 16-bit

sockets appeared on the IBM Corp. PC-AT), parallel ports, serial ports,

keyboard ports and mouse ports.

These old technologies aren't necessarily unreliable, but they aren't

intelligent or manageable, which invites the potential for conflicts among

peripherals. Replacing these ports with newer interconnect technologies

and running Windows 2000 will cut support costs 10 percent to 20 percent

and make PCs a lot more reliable, analysts said.

"It is as close as we can get to a 24-by-seven desktop," said Rob Enderle,

vice president of desktop and mobile technology at Giga Information Group,

Santa Clara, Calif. "[Legacy-free PCs] remove the problems with interrupt

conflicts that are the primary cause of problems."

Why the sudden need to move on? Because as many agencies are finding

out, a large fleet of desktop PCs — at least as they are presently designed

— can be very expensive to manage. "The cost benefit will be pretty valuable,

whether it is from reduced downtime or no interruption of services to customers,"

said Eric Klein, an analyst for Yankee Group, Boston.

Legacy-free PCs may seem to some customers like another version of the

dumb terminal or the Internet appliance, but that is not the case, said

Gary Newgaard, vice president of Compaq Computer Corp.'s federal region.

These machines are full-fledged PCs that have different interface ports,

even if they don't look like traditional PCs. "The government has historically

looked for computing power at the desktop, not for terminals," he said.

Another possible obstacle to acceptance is the perception that buyers

are getting less with a legacy-free PC. "It has been misrepresented as,

"You are not getting something,' " Enderle said.

"We take a little bit out, and you get a lot more in terms of stability,

reliability and lower cost," said Michael Takemura, product marketing manager

for Compaq iComputing.

While the PC99 specification only suggests the elimination of ISA slots

and other legacy ports, analysts expect that the new PC01 specification

due out mid-year will likely require PC vendors to abandon the older ports.

"Gateway feels that it is a good thing," said Stacey Hand, manager of Gateway

Inc.'s business line of computers. "You do away with IRQ and interrupt problems.

"It makes it easier for customers and it makes it easier for us."

In place of these old connections, new PCs will use Universal Serial

Bus (USB) ports, PC Card slots, PCI expansion slots and IEEE 1394 FireWire

ports — all manageable plug-and-play interfaces that try to avoid conflicts

between devices. Even if these expansion ports don't always work as seamlessly

as advertised, they still are an order of magnitude ahead of the old, unmanageable

ports. "True plug and play is coming, we're just not there yet," Klein said.

Apple Computer Inc.'s heralded iMac paved the way for Wintel PCs when

it arrived with only USB expansion ports and not even a floppy disk drive.

Now Compaq's iPaq, Dell's WebPC and Gateway's Profile 2 PCs follow, with

similarly modified designs that aim to simplify administration.

"Apple has always been more legacy-free than Wintel," said Roger Kay, research

manager at International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass. "The Wintel people

have always been those who didn't want to have to throw away their printers

and scanners every time the hardware company makes a design change."

But networked PCs connect to their printers through the network, so

agencies can expect to keep their trusty old printers connected to their

print servers, even while installing new desktop PCs that lack parallel

ports.

As far as losing ISA slots, customers rely on them mostly to recycle

old ISA Ethernet cards when installing new PCs, Kay said. "It's time for

them to move into the new world, and they'll get a lot of benefits [from

legacy-free PCs] to offset the cost of new Ethernet cards," he said.

There may be even more reason to let go of the old, paid-for ISA cards,

however. "ISA devices are the primary source of breakages," Enderle said.

"The most common thing they put in there is an old Ethernet card."

Of the three Wintel legacy-free designs announced so far, only one,

Compaq's iPaq, targets corporate customers such as federal agencies. The

Dell and Gateway PCs are consumer oriented but foretell legacy-free corporate

products from those companies. "Dell is going to have a legacy-free corporate

PC very soon," Enderle said.

Part of the reason for the slow appearance of legacy-free PCs is that

Intel was slow to introduce a legacy-free motherboard, according to Enderle.

Legacy-free motherboards are characterized by their lack of ISA slots.

But as Intel's new legacy-free motherboards start shipping to PC makers

later this month, more of the PCs will begin appearing, said Steve Whalley,

ease-of-use initiative manager at Intel.

Another holdup has been Windows NT's lack of support for USB. Windows

2000 — Windows NT's successor that is to be released Feb. 17 — will support

USB, giving federal customers access to hardware and software needed to

deploy legacy-free desktops.

Customers have been cool to the idea of legacy-free PCs because they

are worried about losing the flexibility provided by the old legacy hardware.

Interestingly, the same concern killed IBM's Micro Channel Architecture

when the computer giant tried to address the same problems a decade ago.

But with openly available interface specifications and a plethora of

peripherals available that use the new connectivity technologies, ISA's

days are finally numbered. "About 80 percent of systems will be ISA-less

in 2000," Whalley said. "Over time, the rest of them will fade away."

That may be more of a problem for those federal agencies that have their

own special devices such as test equipment on ISA cards. They will still

want to hang on to some of their legacy-style PCs, warned Mark Thoreson,

inside sales manager for GTSI. "There are a lot of those old full-length

16-bit cards out there," he said.

Other ports, such as parallel, serial, keyboard and mouse also will

move off most machines through the course of the year. "PC makers will get

rid of the most egregious systems, like ISA, but will allow some legacy

ports, like serial and parallel, to hang around for a while," IDC's Kay

said.

Whether devices such as floppy disk drives follow ISA slots onto history's

trash heap remains to be seen, athough ominous signs are present. Floppy

disks don't hold large enough files to be especially useful anymore, and

having them on desktop PCs presents a security challenge for agencies. Users

not only can remove sensitive information from PCs using floppy disks, they

also can accidentally introduce viruses.

And even the more modern PCI slots may not be necessary for most PCs.

Unlike ISA slots, PCI slots are manageable and move data rapidly, but most

users don't need them if an Ethernet port is built into the motherboard,

as it will be in most business-class PCs.

With no slots or floppy disk drives, space and power requirements for

desktop PCs plummet to notebook-like levels. This means that agencies with

thousands of PCs can save power and desk space. They may also enjoy some

peace from the ever-present whirring of cooling fans in PCs.

These new PCs are called "nanotowers," Kay said, because they are physically

smaller than the microtower PCs now in use. Nanotowers will comprise a quarter

of PC sales by 2003, he estimates.

— Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

The port battle: USB vs. FireWire

A critical component of the legacy-free PC is an intelligent input/output

port for connecting peripherals to the PC. The two contenders are Universal

Serial Bus and the IEEE 1394 specification, popularly known as FireWire.

(Sony Electronics Inc. calls the same interface i.LINK.)

USB and FireWire are intelligent ports that provide plug-and-play connectivity.

For now, the debate comes down to popularity vs. performance. USB has been

on most new PCs since 1998, prompting many peripheral makers to support

the interface.

But FireWire supports transfer rates of up to 100 megabits/sec, significantly

faster than USB's 12 megabits/ sec. Used extensively by Apple Computer Inc.

and Sony, FireWire has been slow to catch on with the PC crowd. Now PC makers

are working on USB2, which maintains compatibility with existing USB devices

but runs at a maximum speed of 480 megabits/sec. USB2 likely will gain favor

with corporate users, while IEEE 1394 may be the consumer interface of choice,

experts said.

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