Notebook PCs get better at cards


IS the desktop PC dead? The claim may seem preposterous, but a growing band of manufacturers say there is nothing a desktop system can do that their laptop or notebook PCs cannot equal.

By the year 2000, an estimated 80 per cent of PC users will use a portable as their main machine, against 30 per cent today.

With their vastly increased storage, the increased quality of their screens and the amount of memory they can offer, even the smallest notebook computers can keep pace with the power of desktop systems.

The real sticking point in designing portable systems which offer desktop power, however, has traditionally been in providing expansion options. Notebook PCs have cut size by eliminating either IBM XT or AT compatible expansion slots.

Two strategies have evolved for dealing with this problem: the docking station and the credit card sized PC Card (formerly called the PCMCIA card).

The docking station was the industry's first answer. Typically, it was a device that you added onto the back of your notebook computer (or a housing into which you inserted the computer) which housed industry standard expansion cards, an extra floppy disk drive, an extra hard disk tape backup drive or a CD Rom drive.

These docking stations allowed people to use their computers on the road and, when they came back to the office, plug into a single device and immediately have access to all the facilities you would typically expect in a desktop system. But because docking stations were generally designed for only a single make or model of computer, they never achieved great economies of scale and still require a considerable addition to the price of the basic notebook computer.

This was one of the main reasons why manufacturers subsequently united in the design of the standard PC Card. The PC Card standard was developed by the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA).

PCMCIA was formed in 1989 as a non profit trade association aimed at establishing a worldwide memory card standard for the PC industry. More than 130 manufacturers, semiconductor companies, software suppliers and systems integrators have joined the PCMCIA since its establishment.

Although having names such as Microsoft, IBM and Intel on board is important, it is the breadth of support the group enjoys across the industry which is making it succeed where similar previous attempts have failed.

There remains, however, a psychological issue. Companies question the wisdom of paying several hundred pounds for add ons that bring capabilities to notebook computers that they can get much more cheaply in desktop systems. Also, users do not like the idea of buying expensive add ons (so small they can easily be lost through a hole in a suit jacket). But then small size convenience has its price.