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Originally published April 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 29, 2005 at 6:15 PM

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Corrected version

Faster, smaller PCs touted at Microsoft conference

Microsoft's first goal was to see a computer on every desk, in every home. Now the company is pushing for a PC on every person. It's comical if you...

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft's first goal was to see a computer on every desk, in every home. Now the company is pushing for a PC on every person.

It's comical if you think of a PC as being a big, beige box with a video monitor on top.

But Microsoft expects the average PC to dramatically shrink in size and grow in performance over the next three years.

Yesterday, the company showed computer makers how to build a device that's smaller than a paperback book, runs all day on a single battery charge, is always connected to the Internet and costs $500 to $800.

"The goal is really to get much closer to the utility of a mobile phone," said Bill Mitchell, vice president of Microsoft's mobile platforms division.

Mitchell gave computer-hardware makers an overview of the strategy yesterday at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle, a day after Chairman Bill Gates showed a prototype in his opening speech.

Microsoft uses the annual conference to help hardware companies develop products based on its software. Most of the technical sessions are devoted to helping companies build devices and machines that work properly with Windows, so a company's digital camera doesn't freeze the system when it's plugged in the first time, for instance.

Attendees also get a preview of where Microsoft sees the computer industry heading.

From Mitchell's perspective, the industry is headed literally into consumers' pockets and purses, where the "ultraportable" or "carry-everywhere form factor" PCs are designed to fit.

Mitchell said Microsoft is working with Intel and other companies to jump-start development of the little machines and capture some of the sales volume that the mobile-phone industry has seen in recent years. It expects ultraportables will debut in 2007 and sales will reach 100 million units in 2008.

The PC industry is already shifting toward smaller and smaller machines. Laptop sales are expected to grow 15 percent annually from 2004 through 2008, compared with 4 percent for desktops, according to Gartner research data that Mitchell presented. He said sales "can be tremendously more than that if we do our jobs right."

To get there, the industry needs to overcome the perception that a PC is a balky machine that sits on a desk. It also needs to start developing systems that operate all day on a single battery charge, are constantly connected to the Internet, start instantly and don't require a keyboard and mouse to operate, Mitchell said.

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The ultraportable device Gates and Mitchell envision is controlled by touch. It has a 6-inch screen, works as a camera and a phone and connects to the Internet via the 3G, high-speed wireless network developed by telecommunications companies.


KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Software developer Rick Swaney, second right, guides others yesterday through a Microsoft exhibit on auxiliary computer displays. Swaney has worked on the Microsoft auxiliary project.

So far, Microsoft only has designs and a nonworking prototype. Gates, in an interview Monday, joked about the current hardware, but said his team expects fully functioning machines to go on sale in a few years.

"Obviously, what I held up was a block of wood," he said of the prototype he showed during his keynote speech. "They said to me when they were briefing me, 'Hey, this is better than what anybody else has.' I said you mean nobody else can shave their block of wood smaller than we can? Just joking."

Microsoft isn't alone or even leading the race to build the ultimate little computer. Toshiba displayed a similar device geared toward playing music at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Several computer companies are also producing tiny PCs with little keyboards, such as the 14-ounce, 5-inch-long, $1,900 OQO.

From Mitchell's perspective, the ultraportable PCs are an evolution of the Tablet PC that Microsoft introduced in 2003. The laptoplike systems are complete PCs but can be operated using a special stylus.

So far Tablet PC sales have been underwhelming, but Mitchell said they're picking up as the price for components falls. He said Tablets are now evolving from a special-purpose machine into a feature to be added onto portable PCs.

According to a roadmap Mitchell displayed yesterday, Microsoft expects mobile computing to become mainstream in 2007 and 2008 with more portable and ultraportable systems based on the new version of Windows scheduled for release next year.

Several engineers who build Tablet PCs for large computer companies were skeptical but intrigued after Mitchell's speech.

"Microsoft is always optimistic," said one Tablet PC maker, who withheld his name because he's instructed not to talk to the press. "But if they do half of what they say it's a huge business."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published April 27, 2005, was corrected April 29, 2005. OQO, a San Francisco-based manufacturer of handheld PCs, is not backed by Paul Allen. A previous version of this story indicated that he did.

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