Typically, PC users do not give the low-level software on their computers a second thought. Known as the basic input-output system, or BIOS, this software plays an extremely important role in the way that computers work–checking and preparing hardware when a machine is switched on–but most people don’t even know it’s there.
California-based Phoenix Technologies–the largest provider of BIOS software to computer makers–has tired of being invisible. Building on the virtualization technology more common to high-power workstations and data centers, the company has revamped its BIOS software to offer features that people tend to associate with a full-blown operating system: the ability to access more peripherals, such as disks and mouses, and networking and wireless communications.
Earlier this year, Phoenix launched the slimmed-down operating system, dubbed HyperSpace, and in June, the company plans a major update, which will add e-mail capabilities and instant messaging. The goal is to allow people faster access to the core tasks for which they use their computers, says Woody Hobbs, CEO of the company.
“Our standard here, when we want to see how the PC should work, is to look at smart phones,” he says. “Those are on almost all the time, they don’t boot very often, and they are instant-on.”
The core system software, as the company now calls its BIOS, builds on Linux operating system software and virtualization technology. Virtualization software started out as a way for users of one operating system, such as Windows XP, to run another operating system, such as Mac OS X or Linux, in a virtual environment. But as the technology has evolved, developers have recognized other advantages, aside from interoperability. By creating a virtualized layer of software, known as a hypervisor, between a computer’s hardware and the operating system, for example, data can be transparently checked for viruses and other malicious software. In the business world, a single big server or a cluster of computers can run virtualized systems so that resources can be divvied up among customers.
Yet the technology has not found much use in consumer products. Now every PC and laptop shipped with Phoenix’s core system software will also contain the necessary components to use the company’s add-on HyperSpace. “It is going after a different audience,” says Rob Enderle, a PC technology analyst. “It is trying to create a new market using the ideas of a fast-booting, safe platform that people can work in, but remain outside of Windows.”