IBM's research division says it has developed a prototype of a portable computer module that is the size of a small pad of paper and has the computing power of a typical notebook or desktop computer.
The portable computing device, which IBM Research will unveil on Feb. 11 at a technology conference in Phoenix, includes 128 Mbytes of dynamic random access memory, a 10-Gbit hard drive and a microprocessor that runs at 800 MHz.
"We've taken the PC down to where you can take it home and finish your work," says Kenneth Ocheltree, manager for next-generation mobile at IBM Research.
Code-named "MetaPad," the module is 5 inches long, 3 inches wide and about three-quarters of an inch thick. It fits into a larger accessory piece that features a small, flat screen on front and is about 6 inches long, 4 inches wide and 1 inch thick.
The index-card sized module can also be plugged into a docking station for a PC, enabling the user to move all of his or her information and applications from one location to another. It runs Microsoft's Windows XP operating system.
Ocheltree says IBM doesn't have specific plans to sell the prototype, which could be ready for market in few years. IBM is talking to computer makers and customers about how it could be used, he says.
"We're trying to understand how people would use it and interact with it," Ocheltree says.
He says some possible uses are in areas like medicine, international customs and airline and hotel check-in. IBM is working on how wireless technology could be used with the device, he adds.
Companies like Palm, Handspring and Research In Motion all make pocket-sized computers with various degrees of computing power that handle anything from calendar functions to e-mail transmission. PC makers Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer also make handheld computers.
Rapid growth in the handheld market has slowed amid the overall economic downturn as consumers have tightened up on spending, and the industry is increasingly introducing wireless devices for communications.
IBM, with a $5 billion research and development budget in 2001, does everything from exploratory research to application development, working in computer science, material science, mathematics and physics. For example, it has worked on making semiconductors smaller and faster.
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