PC99s Eliminate Older, Trouble-Prone Technologies

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.

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