Netbooks: small, cheap -- and fast?

Linux distributor Good OS and BIOS vendor Phoenix Technologies are launching quick-start programs to speed the operation of netbooks.

Linux distributor Good OS and BIOS vendor Phoenix Technologies each have plans to make netbooks speedier devices, the vendors said at the Netbook World Summit in Paris on Monday.

For Good OS, the browser is the operating system -- or at least, all you're going to see of it.

While other companies have developed quick-start software that allows you to check mail or play music seconds after turning on your computer, Good OS has created "a wrapper that enables you to perform all your major rich client applications from within the browser," said Good OS founder and CEO David Liu.

The company's forthcoming "Cloud" combines a compressed Linux kernel with a browser modified to play media files, make phone calls and set up the computer's network connection.

The different functions are accessed through a line of icons at the bottom of the browser window, reminiscent of the Dock in Apple's Mac OS X. They can include a media player, a Skype client, a Gmail session, access to online productivity suites such as Google Docs, or a tool for configuring Wi-Fi access. The browser's tabbed interface allows navigation between different tasks, Liu said.

Netbook manufacturers can also choose to add a button to launch a full operating system, either Windows or Linux, for users who just have to run a "real" application for some tasks.

That's what Good OS's first customer plans to do, said Liu. Taiwanese vendor Giga-byte Technology will show a Tablet PC-style touch-screen netbook at CES in Las Vegas in January, running Cloud and Windows XP, he said.

Liu wasn't sure how much Giga-byte will charge for the netbook, venturing that it would perhaps be "under US$500," and that in any case he expected it to be "very competitive." He wouldn't say exactly how much Good OS is charging Giga-byte for the software, either. "We are talking more high-end, but very cost-competitive," he said.

Phoenix Technologies is readying something similar to Cloud -- but with a twist: Its quick-start Linux system puts the application icons down the side of the screen, instead of along the bottom.

There's more to it than that, though: Using its HyperSpace virtualization software, Phoenix allows you to read your e-mail or check out a YouTube video within 10 to 15 seconds of turning on your computer, while Windows continues to boot in the background. The Windows icon at the side of the screen changes to let you know when the operating system is ready for work.

This system also allows Phoenix to apply some aggressive power-management techniques, reducing system load and shutting down unused components to give users up to an hour of extra battery life as they surf the Web, said Surendra Arora, the company's vice president of business development.

"Vista has a lot of processes running, on average about 70, whereas we run about 15," he said.

That power management can be applied to Windows too, he said, just as a night-time crescent moon appeared on the Windows icon to indicate that the operating system had gone into "sleep" mode behind the scene.

Phoenix too plans to show its new software at CES in January. Arora wouldn't say who the company's partners will be, but he did have the software running on a Lenovo IdeaPad S10. The current version of that netbook, the IdeaPad S10e, ships with the competing Splashtop quick-start software from DeviceVM. With Splashtop, though, you have to choose between booting Windows or continuing to read your e-mail.

The company first demonstrated the HyperSpace software in November 2007, hoping to persuade application vendors to develop special versions of messaging or maintenance tools to run on it. At the time, the license for some versions of Windows Vista prevented its use in such virtual machines, and Phoenix had to wait until early this year for Microsoft to relax the rules, opening the way for makers of small, cheap computers to combine Windows Vista with its quick-start technology.

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