PortalPlayer offers 'always-on' laptop interface

PortalPlayer's 'always-on' notebook interface will add up to $40 to the cost of the notebook, the company's CEO said.

An "always on" display technology from PortalPlayer that lets users peek inside their notebooks without booting them up will cost manufacturers US$30 to US$40 to add to each machine, the company's president and CEO said this week.

PortalPlayer announced its Preface display technology in January. It can go into laptop lids as an always-on interface that lets users load applications and access information on their laptops without having to open and boot them up, thus saving battery life, the company said.

It can do this because Preface has its own operating software, processor and memory cache, as well as APIs (application programming interfaces) into Microsoft's Windows operating system. It caches information from the machine in its memory and can then access that data using less power than it would take to start the notebook, according to the company.

PortalPlayer hopes to bring down the bill of materials for the technology to less than US$20 by 2008, Gary Johnson, the company's president and chief executive officer, said in an interview Monday. It's optimistic that by that time as many as half of the laptops shipped will use its technology -- although it has yet to name a laptop vendor committed to using Preface. Microsoft and PortalPlayer have demonstrated the technology on prototypes from Quanta Computer and Asustek Computer.

PortalPlayer kept down the costs of Preface by using a display used in mobile phones, rather that developing one specially, to take advantage of the economies of scale in the phone market, Johnson said. The costs will include US$18 to US$20 for a display, about US$12 for the single-chip processor and a few dollars for memory and other small components, he said.

Preface uses a secondary notebook subsystem that includes a low-power processor, a display and user controls that can be installed in various locations including the outside of the notebook cover. "Except for periodically interrogating the notebook and bringing up the data, it is a standalone subsystem," apart from the power it draws from the notebook battery, Johnson said.

Preface is built around the SideShow feature of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, which is scheduled for release later this year. PortalPlayer also has a Windows XP version of Preface, but this version requires the computer to boot up temporarily to access the content, Johnson said.

PortalPlayer, based in San Jose, California, expects notebooks with Preface to start shipping in the second half of this year. The technology will initially go into high-end notebook computers, Johnson said.

Preface is part of PortalPlayer's bid to diversify from its core business as a supplier of chips and software for MP3 players. At the end of last year it set up additional business units for personal media displays and personal wireless entertainment.

More than 90 percent of the company's revenue comes from sales of silicon and software for Apple Computers's iPod players.

Although PortalPlayer's products are also used in other digital music players, the iPod's success means it depends on a single vendor -- Apple -- for most of its revenue, Johnson said.

Diversification for its business had to come from a large, established market that it could penetrate quickly, which is why it aimed Preface initially at notebooks, Johnson said. Revenue from the sale of Preface with notebook computers is expected to account for up to 10 percent of PortalPlayer's revenue this year, he added.

PortalPlayer is also developing wireless technology for music players and other entertainment devices. "Short range, low power wireless technologies are of interest to us," Johnson said. Such devices are likely to require a combination of wireless technologies, including possibly Bluetooth for connecting to wireless headphones and mobile phones, Wi-Fi for streaming music from hot spots, and a technology like UWB (Ultra Wide Band) for connecting to a central media server at home, he said. The company also sees potential in satellite radio services to entertainment devices.

PortalPlayer doesn't see an immediate opportunity in integrating full-featured personal media players with mobile phones. Until 3G (third generation) networks get more pervasive, download speeds are still too slow and the user experience poor, according to Johnson. Many users will not want to sacrifice their available talk time for the additional battery power needed to listen to music, he added.

The company will initially offer device makers technologies that use multiple chips, but down the line it may offer single chips that integrate different wireless capabilities.

The wireless entertainment market will take time to contribute significantly to PortalPlayer's revenue, because it is still a developing market, Johnson said.

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