Phoenix Pushes Platform for Instant-on Notebook Apps

It's four years since Phoenix Technologies last tried to boot up the market for instant-on notebook PCs and now it's trying again with a new software platform called HyperSpace.

Notebooks designed to run the software could offer instant-on functions including multimedia playback, e-mail, instant messaging, Web browsing or remote system maintenance, all without the need to boot into an operating system such as Windows.

For that to happen, though, Phoenix must first persuade other developers to write such software for its platform and then convince PC manufacturers to adapt their products to incorporate the necessary software and hardware. Although Phoenix did not say with which PC manufacturers and software developers it is working to bring HyperSpace to market, it has invited speakers from Lenovo and McAfee to speak on a conference call it is hosting later Monday.

The HyperSpace platform is built on a virtual machine manager or hypervisor that Phoenix calls HyperCore. Hypervisors allow applications or full operating systems to run independently and at the same time on a single processor, in a way that prevents them from interfering with one another. The Milpitas, California, company has worked with Intel and Advanced Micro Devices to take advantage of the virtualization capabilities of their respective microprocessors, it said.

Phoenix is best known as a developer of BIOS software, code that PCs run after they power on and before loading a full operating system such as Windows or Linux, and that provides a standard interface to the various hardware components in a PC.

HyperCore will run between those two layers of software, while HyperSpace will offer a quick-starting alternative to full-blown operating systems such as Windows or Linux.

The combination of HyperCore and HyperSpace could be used to develop software appliances that start up quickly to perform a single task such as browsing Web pages or playing media files, Phoenix said.

One use for HyperSpace could be to make antivirus software more reliable. While rootkits and other malware can exploit flaws in Windows to render themselves invisible to antivirus software, a security application running outside the operating system could see through such illusions, Phoenix said in a presentation to investors of an early version of the technology.

In another example, if the operating system on a PC's hard disk became corrupt, a HyperSpace support tool could allow a help desk to remotely start up the PC, diagnose the problem and perhaps restore the software so that the PC can boot normally.

Phoenix first tried to enable instant-on notebooks in 2003, with the launch of its Core Managed Environment platform and software designed to run on it: FirstBIOS and a suite of PC maintenance tools and other software branded FirstWare. As with HyperSpace, the idea was that FirstWare applications could run before, alongside or instead of a fully fledged operating system, allowing notebook users to access their e-mail or run antivirus software without waiting for Windows to boot up. In March 2004, the company demonstrated FirstWare Assistant, an application that could display messages and other data stored in an Outlook database.

Other companies have tried to tackle the instant-on problem too.

Seeing that many travelers use their notebooks for watching movies, not for work, PC manufacturers initially concentrated on this aspect. In July 2004, Toshiba launched a notebook with a feature it called Express Media Player, enabling it to play DVDs and CDs without first booting an operating system. Hewlett-Packard followed suit in 2005 with a range of notebooks featuring a technology it called QuickPlay.

In the run-up to the launch of Windows Vista, Microsoft published the specification for Vista Sideshow, a system for accessing information such as media files, e-mail messages or appointments stored on a notebook's hard disk -- without booting up Windows. PC manufacturers such as Asustek and LG sell notebooks with auxiliary displays on the outside of their lids, capable of displaying this information.

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