FIVE years ago, portable computers lagged behind in the technology race.
They were slower, less technically advanced, and more expensive than their desktop cousins. Now, they're leading the pack in many areas of innovation.
``The first generation of notebooks ... were desktops with the air taken out of them,'' says Portia Isaacson, a consultant and president of Dream IT in Colorado Springs, Colo. For the past year and a half, notebook sales have taken off, innovative companies are jumping on the notebook bandwagon, and innovations are now migrating the other way - from the notebook to the desktop, she says.
* The green PC. With battery power so important for portable systems, engineers have developed all kinds of ways to save energy in notebook computers. They're applying the same techniques, such as power management, to the desktop. Other companies are using portable technology to shrink the size of their desktop machines, reducing materials and costs.
* Plug-and-play. Desktop computers are not consumer-friendly when it comes to installing a new device. Notebook computers are popularizing a much easier add-on technology, which uses credit-card sized devices known as PCMCIA cards. PCMCIA slots are showing up on desktop machines too, making it easy to plug in a computer modem or local-area-network (LAN) connection.
* Wireless communications. Mobile computers are starting to sport communications devices that aren't tethered to wires. Experts suggest that, as the technology develops, some desktop machines will also be hooked together via wireless LANs.
Other notebook-to-desktop possibilities are in the works. NEC Technologies, for example, has built prototype desktop monitors that use the liquid-crystal-display (LCD) technology of notebook computers. One day, it could replace today's cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors.
``CRT-based displays ... will be the technology of choice till the year 2000,'' says Jerry Benson, a senior vice president of marketing with NEC.
The major reason is price. For high-end portable workstations, NEC makes a 12.9-inch color LCD screen. It is 20 times the price of NEC's 14-inch desktop monitor. When prices come down, LCDs could gain momentum for desktops. Users might hang them on walls. Or use them as a screen to write on (another technology that's showing up on many portable computers).
Some notebook innovations will simplify desktop computing.
Take PCMCIA technology. At the moment, changing the hard disk in a desktop computer is a relatively complicated procedure.
But several notebook vendors have introduced proprietary systems that allow users to remove and replace hard drives easily. Even better, Maxtor Ltd. and IBM have developed a 105-megabyte PCMCIA hard drive that users can pop into their machines as easily as they slip in a floppy disk.
ONCE PCMCIA drives are standardized, users will be able to carry their data around on the equivalent of a thick credit card and plug it into any machine, including desktops. In June, IBM announced the PS/2E - a desktop machine with four PCMCIA slots. Siemens and NCR have also included PCMCIA slots in new desktop models.
The technology isn't fast or powerful enough to handle intensive computer operations, such as video, so desktop computers will continue to have interior slots, says Jim Davis, chief engineer of the IBM PS/2E. But the ability to pop in a PCMCIA fax/modem or other peripheral will make desktops much more flexible.
``I believe that we're going to see a revolution in mobile computing in the next few years largely based on plug-in cards and expandability,'' he says.
Sometimes notebook technology has to be modified to work well on the desktop. With power-management, ``all of a sudden my screen will go blank or my hard drive will spin down. Then there's a big delay,'' says Mike Aymar, vice president and general manager of Intel Corporation's mobile computing group. That's okay for notebook users, who understand the need to conserve battery power. But delays don't sit well with desktop users. So Intel and other companies are working on more sophisticated techniques for the system to anticipate when it is safe to power down.
One challenge is networking. A machine that goes into suspend mode can cause the network to log the machine out or other nasty problems, Mr. Aymar says. ``We're working through today a lot of these connectivity issues.''
Another way to save energy is to use better hardware. When Intel Corporation began working on its 386SL chip in late 1988, it envisioned the product as a microprocessor for first-time computer buyers.
``When we first designed the SL, we thought about using the SL as an entry-level chip for notebooks and desktops,'' Aymar recalls. But computer companies snapped up the energy-saving chip for notebooks exclusively. Early last year, Intel decided to begin putting SL technology on all its chips. The result: low-power microprocessors that use less electricity on desktop computers as well as notebooks.
``As time goes on, you'll see the design of the green PCs get more sophisticated,'' Aymar predicts. Notebook technology ``is leading the way.''