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BIOS Maker Aims to Retake the PC

Phoenix Technologies is pushing its pint-size OS as a complement to Windows.

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.

Boot time: HyperSpace, developed by Phoenix Technologies, is sold as an add-on that consumers can install and as a product that PC manufacturers can bundle with systems.

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.”

Office suite: The BIOS software runs a variety of common applications, including a Web browser, a media player, and office productivity software.

The most visible selling point for the slimmed-down operating system is speed. Because it does not carry the weight of numerous drivers, utility software, and add-ons, HyperSpace taxes the processor and memory far less than does Windows, Hobbs says. As time goes on, regular computers are typically slowed by legacy software too, he says. “Your system starts to get sluggish because of the registry, or drivers get out of date, or virus checking has to take place,” Hobbs says. “A lot of people tell me that they got a new PC, and it starts up real fast. And I say one word: ‘Wait.’”

Phoenix currently offers two versions of HyperSpace. The full-featured version allows PCs and laptops to hot-switch between the main operating system, such as Windows, and the HyperSpace environment. Computers that do not have enough processor power or memory to run both systems at the same time, such as the increasingly popular netbooks, can only boot into one mode at a time.

The software can be used in two other ways. As a nod to netbook manufacturers, Phoenix offers a mode called “dual resume,” which allows the users to switch back and forth between the main operating system and HyperSpace completely, with some delay. In the fourth case, the core security software grabs input and output from the network and disk to check the data for security threats. In that case, “you won’t even really know you are using hyperspace,” Hobbs says.

The company has worked hard to get the technology right, and the CEO says that the user experience, and not the engineering, is the most important part. “If you don’t get the experience right, the fact that you created the world’s coolest technology doesn’t matter,” Hobbs says. “If you create instant-on garbage, no one will use it.”

After Phoenix upgrades HyperSpace in June, it plans to focus on creating a better development platform to attract more application makers, says Hobbs. Part of this will mean opening an application store, much like Apple’s iPhone app store.

Even with those ambitious plans, however, convincing consumers to adopt a new environment will be hard, says analyst Enderle. “This platform could be a native platform for the netbook, but I think it needs to mature a bit before many people will take it as it stands alone.”

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