IBM shows off modular hardware device

Still conducting research to determine market interest, IBM Research is showing off a prototype 9-ounce portable-computing device that can be quickly transformed into a handheld, desktop, or laptop system.

Code-named MetaPad, the device, which is three-quarters of an inch thick and measures 3 inches by 5 inches, is capable of holding all of a user’s applications and data with a bare-bones hardware configuration.

IBM Corp. researchers were able to make the device as small as it is by removing its power supply, display, and input-output connectors, leaving just its Transmeta Crusoe 5800 variable processor — with speeds ranging from 300MHz to 800MHz – a 10GB hard drive, and 128MB of memory.

Those components taken out of the MetaPad then become accessories and options that individuals can add or not add, depending on how they want to use the device, company officials said.

While the unit that officials showed off was running Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system, the company is working on a version of Linux that will work with the new device. They said support for the wireless 802.11b standard would eventually be added as well.

“One of our goals with this device is to study how users work with their information, which, in turn, will help us develop the software, middleware, and hardware we need to improve the user experience,” said Ken Ocheltree, manager of Next Generation Mobile, at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Ocheltree demonstrated the core working with a docking station or cradle that can be plug into a desktop monitor and keyboard and functionally serve as a desktop system.

He also demonstrated the core with a 3-inch-by-5-inch color touch display — originally designed for a DVD player – that snaps in and out, essentially turning it into a PDA (personal digital assistant). In that configuration users can run videos, play music CDs and surf the Web.

Users could also attach the device to a harness they can wear that has a small head-mounted display, allowing it to be used in those environments that require hands-free computing.

The version of the system shown off also featured IBM’s handwriting recognition software and transparent on-screen keyboard, permitting users to input data with a pen or type it in onscreen. The device is also capable of supporting IBM’s Via Voice speech recognition software

IBM currently has no plans to sell the system, although it has been showing it around to selected equipment manufacturers. While there has been some level of interest among them, none have committed to private labeling the handheld system.

While there is no price set on any of the devices’s configurations, the price for the core in its basic configuration could be somewhere between US$800 and US$1,000, which would place it in competition with lower end laptops.

IBM Canada in Markham, Ont., is at