E.G. for Example: The 'Athens' PC -- It's Greek To Me

Microsoft and HP have kicked off this week's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference by showing a prototype PC with wide-screen LCD, integrated phone, and other features. But HwC's editor worries that the industry pacesetter's R&D brilliance -- did you know wider monitors benefit women more than men? -- might benefit Microsoft's and its fellow vendors' bottom line more than yours.
How Will Microsoft and HP Re-Invent the Business Desktop? With Xeel

It's the punch line of many a sexist joke, but Microsoft's Web site links to a New Scientist article in which researchers from the software giant and Carnegie Mellon University told a computer-usability conference that, at least on screen, men really do navigate or read maps better than women. One possible explanation is that ancient males learned to roam around hunting and gathering while females stayed close to the cave. Another is that women don't unfold maps wide enough.

Seriously, Microsoft -- which, as you know, is seriously into virtual 3D worlds and new metaphors for navigating through programs and files -- says its studies find women tend to be about 20 percent slower than men in orienting themselves within a computer-generated environment, whether it's Unreal Tournament or a military simulator. But give them a wide-screen display -- a panoramic viewing angle of, say, 100 degrees versus the usual monitor's 35 -- and, Microsoft computer scientist Mary Czerwinski told New Scientist, the gender gap disappears.

So a 17-inch or larger LCD monitor with a wide-screen aspect ratio -- the new buzzword, or rather number, seems to be 16:10, which crossed my desk in press releases from two companies today -- will be an important part of your next desktop. And at today's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) keynote in New Orleans, Microsoft and HP told us what the other parts will be.

The two firms teamed up to show off an office PC prototype called "Athens," which unites software and hardware in what their white paper calls "a wholly integrated design that is intended to reduce the visual, physical, and cognitive complexity of the PC," not by specifying so many gigahertz or such-and-such a hard disk but by merging "all communication media -- including voice, video, and text messaging" -- into "consistent," "compelling," and "rich experiences with everyday communication and collaboration tasks."

You want that in English? A videoconferencing camera for instant messaging and a telephone handset hung off the side of the monitor.

What Else Is New?

The handset, or speakerphone or headset, will -- like Athens' keyboard and mouse -- use Bluetooth wireless technology. When it rings, Caller ID will let you know who's on the line, via a pop-up screen of Microsoft Outlook contact info and links to recent messages and documents. If you're busy, you can set the PC to mute, so blinking lights in your peripheral vision (on the keyboard or monitor bezel) indicate incoming calls, new voice-mail messages, or imminent appointments.

Speaking of mute, Athens will be a whisper-quiet, small-form-factor machine, whose power button switches between on and standby modes rather than on and off -- resuming work in no more than two seconds. In the event of a power failure, a built-in battery will last long enough to hibernate or save system status to the hard disk.

The audio-volume and play/pause controls on current keyboards will expand to include do-not-disturb and speakerphone buttons. Moreover, Microsoft says, "a new set of cross-product navigation controls," codenamed Xeel, will use a mouse-style scroll wheel and buttons to provide an interface for everything from Pocket PCs and Tablet PCs to Smart Displays, other gadgets, and new desktops.

The overall idea seems to be a simpler, more intuitive computing experience, mixed with such familiar technology -- PC phones have been tried before, and Caller ID screen pops have been a contact-manager staple for years -- that it's a mystery why Athens isn't supposed to arrive till 2004 or 2005.

One possible reason is to give LCD prices more time to fall: One Microsoft exec has predicted the prototype's 20-inch flat panel will cost under $400 next year. Another is to wait for the next version of Windows, now leaking around the Web under the codename "Longhorn" -- and if Mac fans accuse Microsoft of shameless plagiarism when they see Athens' white-lucite clone of Apple's Cinema Display LCD, they'll be apoplectic over the tumbling, translucent windows and other alpha-blended eye candy of Mac OS X, I mean Longhorn.

The User Is Not the Customer

Actually, that last point troubles me a little: If you use the DirectX 9 technology of the latest, most exotic 3D games for basic operating-system visuals, you're saying every office PC needs the expensive DirectX 9 graphics accelerators now found in hardcore gamers' desktops.

And if you read Microsoft's white paper, you find the software giant explaining how "business decision-makers are willing to pay more for a PC with 'Athens' design features": according to surveys, $74 more for instant-on, $127 for power-outage protection, and $190 for the extra buttons and speakerphone, raising the estimated price of a typical enterprise desktop from $1,366 to $1,757.

Judging by this week's WinHEC agenda, Microsoft's "Trusted Computing" promise to fight the security leaks and hackers that plague its products seems to have segue'd into a "Next Generation Secure Computing Base" plan that prominently features digital rights management and content copy protection -- in other words, the RIAA's and Disney's interests rather than yours. And Microsoft's hardware initiatives seem to apply its amazing research and expertise toward helping PC vendors turn around a torpid, commoditized market and slim profit margins, not addressing real user demands.

There's nothing wrong with that, any more than there is with Detroit automakers slanting their financing or product plans toward their dealers -- who are, after all, their customers (car buyers like you and me are the dealers' customers). But that means it's up to you, whether it's Microsoft launching a marketing campaign with the heady words "Do Amazing Things" or HP whooping, "Now you can use your PC to forward calls to voice mail," to ask one simple question:

Do you want to?

Eric Grevstad is Hardware Central's managing editor. A former editor in chief of Home Office Computing and editor of Computer Shopper, he's been covering PCs and peripherals since leaving the liberal arts for TRS-80 and Apple II magazines in the early '80s.

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