The Power of the Ultralight

Portable computers were originally considered too slow to run knowledge-creating applications such as word processing, presentations, spreadsheets and messaging. Nor were they truly portable enough to work anytime, anywhere. And neither portable nor desktop personal computers were taken seriously as platforms for cycle-hungry KM apps designed to run off of corporate servers, such as document management or collaboration.
Now, however, nobody has to think twice about taking KM on the road. New computers as light as 3 pounds-so-called ultralights or ultraportables-can handle for the most demanding PC applications, while more KM applications are appearing that run on personal computers, including ultraportables, rather than requiring a server connection.

These days, more knowledge is created and managed on the run. "As corporations increasingly encourage workers to take their work home or out on the road, the work environment no longer really exists on the desk, but in hotel rooms, in cars and on airplanes," says Alan Promisel, a notebook analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC), Framingham, Mass.

Until recently, full-power computing on a featherweight platform was possible only via expensive imports from Japanese manufacturers such as Sony, Sharp and Toshiba. But late last year, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq introduced domestic models that matched the imports spec for spec. For example, the IBM X Series of 3-pound ThinkPads offers 12.1-inch screens in a titanium body only an inch thick. A low-voltage Intel Mobile Pentium III processor yields up to 700MHz or almost five hours of life in conservation mode, with up to 384MB of RAM and up to 20GB of disk space.

Such increases in power, portability and capacity--along with availability and affordability--have won acceptance for the category in corporate computer fleets. According to IDC, which by 1999 was calling portable PCs "today's primary business tool," enterprise use of portables had grown to account for 29 percent of all PC shipments by 2000. Ultraportables accounted for a third of that, at 9.5 percent. "The utility of a mobile appliance is measured in the ability of the user to do the usual things in unusual places," says David Carey, president of the technology analysis firm Portelligent Inc. in Austin, Texas.

Today's ultralights can easily hold decades' worth of personal work, volumes of corporate material synchronized from central servers, and contacts and correspondence with thousands of people. You can index and search this personal repository with products such as Enfish Onespace or Isys Desktop. Capture new documents off the Internet with Web clipping tools such as eGems and Clickgarden. Extract key concepts from lengthy documents with Copernic Summarizer. Manage collaboration with Groove or Ikimbo Omniprise. Transcribe dictation with voice-recognition programs such as IBM's ViaVoice or Dragon's Naturally Speaking.

Will ultralights be rendered obese and obsolete by future palmtops and PDAs? Unlikely, Promisel says. "Notebooks are document production devices. While they can keep your date book and contacts together, you can't create a spreadsheet or presentation on a handheld device."

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