By Stephen Ballantyne
Friday 23rd June 2000
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Instead they're presented as being some kind of "information appliance," which is a way of suggesting these are more appropriate to a business than a plain old computer.
They're probably right and they're not alone in adopting the iPaq approach - Hewlett-Packard's e-Vectra is rather similar, right down to the curvy case with a limited number of ports on the back.
It's all an expression of a long-running problem with PCs: they're too easy to bugger up. Any kid just out of school these days thinks he can pop the lid on his office PC, put in a 3D accelerator and start playing shoot-em-ups in his lunch hour over the network with the guys in the dispatch department. Except that the software required has subtly pranged his Windows registry, the 3D accelerator is incompatible with his PC's printer drivers and the traffic generated at lunchtime is swamping the corporate network.
Compaq and HP's solution: boxes that can't be opened or have no slots in them, so there'll be no funny 3D cards or other gadgets turning up; no disc drives or CD drives, so there'll be no unauthorised installation of software; and minimal device connectivity, just sockets for ethernet and USB - call it "legacy free" because all those old peripherals that used to be hooked up to PCs simply won't fit any more.
By agreeing on a set of minimum standards (powerful ones, though, with fast CPUs and plenty of Ram and storage) and selling machines that do exactly the minimum, PC makers are winding the clock back to the days when computers had a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) because standardisation meant they were more reliable.
People have remarked that the e-Vectra and iPaq resemble the style of Apple's recent iMac computers but it isn't just in looks. Apple has long claimed low TCOs for its Macs because, unlike IBM, it managed to retain control of the definition of a standard Macintosh. In theory there are no surprises about what's in a Mac and there should be no surprises about legacy-free PCs either.
The only problem with legacy-free PCs is you have to buy them. It would be better if system reliability could be retroactively fitted to existing PCs.
This all came to mind when Adaptec's Asia-Pacific marketing manager Hung Kwang Tan demonstrated his company's efforts to provide a solution to reliability and TCO issues last week. Adaptec is probably best known for its Raid controllers and other storage products, particularly its DirectCD and Toast CD-Rom recording software.
Despite this, its GoBack software attempts to provide a solution of sorts to TCO issues without selling extra storage hardware (or not directly - see story below). Instead Adaptec has attempted to bring more reliability to PCs by aggressive journalling.
By recording PC system events, GoBack makes it practically impossible to do anything to a PC via the keyboard, mouse or network that can't be undone.
Mr Tan claims GoBack is the cure for any conceivable software problem, including viruses.
"We are looking at a PC that never fails, except from hardware crashes," he said. "It can recover even when Windows won't boot and it needs no attention from the user. It's great for system support - install it on a PC and it can cut the average length of a support call by nearly eight minutes."
Adaptec has high hopes for GoBack and sees it fitting into a niche near to the anti-virus market (worth over $US1 billion this year), the enterprise backup market ($US1.8 billion) or the desktop backup market ($US260 million). All three markets are expanding strongly; the Adaptec product potentially overlaps them all.
It would be silly to say GoBack can make a non-legacy-free PC completely trustworthy but in its present form it's not intended for large corporate buyers of devices such as the iPaq and e-Vectra. Instead it's for people who are managing their PCs themselves and who are sensible enough not to do anything really silly to the hardware.
GoBack doesn't incorporate security yet, so it can easily be turned off. That would give a saboteur plenty of time to ruin an unguarded PC - but then so would letting someone attack it with a hammer.
Similarly, if your PC should develop a serious hardware fault there's nothing any software can do for it, but at least GoBack means you might be able to retrieve the contents of a PC's hard disk.
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