Technology: Intel gets on the move: New chips and memory cards will improve portable computers, says Malcolm Wheatley

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The Independent Online
REGULAR users of laptop or the even smaller 'notebook' computers know the problem well. Working on the train or plane is fine in theory but has its limitations in practice.

Half-way through rejigging the budget, a series of beeps warns that the battery is about to run out. Arrive at your destination and you need to dig several bulky pieces of equipment out of your luggage to recharge the computer and transmit your work back to base.

At present, mobile computing involves lugging around a battery charger, its power lead, a fax/modem unit and some interface cables, virtually doubling the space the computer takes in your luggage. A box of floppy disks and a network interface take even more. As the market for desktop PCs starts to slow, mobile computing needs to become much easier if the industry is to continue to grow at its historic rate.

At the moment, only the dedicated really bother. Dataquest, the US market analysts, expects worldwide desktop sales to peak this year at around 21 million units, dropping to 18 million in 1995. Sales of mobile computers, by contrast, are forecast to grow from around 6 million this year to 20 million in 1995. But only if their performance matches their promise.

Intel, which has just overtaken Motorola to become the world's largest manufacturer of semi-conductors, has an obvious interest in ensuring that it does. Its microprocessors drive 80 per cent of the world's IBM-compatible PCs: the company's fate is therefore closely linked to the PC's. Last week, a court ruled that Intel did hold copyright over the 486 microprocessor, which seems set to prolong this situation.

Intel has consequently launched two advances in mobile computing technology which it predicts will make a great difference to the productivity of managers on the move.

The first is a new microprocessor especially designed for portable battery-driven use. Because it has been specifically engineered for mobile use it uses less power than the company's basic desktop chips, despite performing the same tasks.

It also incorporates special circuitry which can be programmed to switch the processor off after a stated interval, while leaving everything else running. This interval can be as short as that between two consecutive keystrokes if required. As a result, battery life is extended by up to four hours, says the company - doubling the life that batteries achieve at present.

The second innovation is based on 'flash' memory technology which enables contents to be retained even when the power is off. The information is held on cards which are all the same size and can be carried in pockets or wallets. Each contains the equivalent of several boxes of floppy disks.

Further advances in miniaturisation mean that modems and fax cards will also shortly be available in the credit card format, making communications back to base much simpler. The company is also very involved in developing a local area network interface card.

Managers arriving at a satellite office can plug their laptop straight into the network, pick up any pending electronic mail and download the correspondence generated en route. Intel predicts that around 80 per cent of notebook PCs built using the new chip in the next six months will have one or more slots for these ExCa (Exchangeable Card Architecture) plug-ins.

According to industry experts, flash memory cards will be 'the next big thing'. However, the technology is not without its problems.

The first is the classic computer difficulty of compatibility. Users want the ability to plug cards into the various different computers they use. Unfortunately, flash memory technology has been around just long enough to attract competing approaches, with no industry standard.

Intel, by launching ExCa, hopes to use its market domination to impose an exchangeable standard. Others, however, worry that this exchangeability might be rather excessive.

When 100 megabytes of a company's valuable commercial secrets can be contained in a plastic card in someone's wallet, theft is an obvious danger.

Nevertheless, Intel remains bullish. Steve Poole, director and general manager of Intel Europe, predicts that a wide variety of devices employing the ExCa standard will be developed. 'The range is only limited by people's inventiveness,' he says, pointing to a cellular telephone hook-up under development. A mobile computer user himself, he enthuses that it at last makes taking the office on the road a realistic option.

Given Intel's dependence on PC sales, his view is doubtless shared by others. Research shows that most users of mobile computers use them in the office, or at remote sites. Only about a third use them while travelling.

That proportion will have to change if the company's strategy is not to come unstuck.

(Photograph omitted)