Tadpole turns frog into prince with Sparcle

New laptop good to go

Say goodbye to the $20,000 SPARC notebook and hello to Sparcle.

A few weeks back, Tadpole Computer introduced its cheapest Solaris/SPARC laptop to date, and we've had the pleasure of giving the kit a test spin. With a sharp design and a price-tag starting below $3,000, the Sparcle laptop kicks off a new direction for Tadpole away from a myopic focus on government clients and toward attracting developers and admins.

The Sparcle system ships with up to a 650MHz UltraSPARC IIi chip, giving it plenty of horsepower in a small form factor. With 64bit chips, a Unix OS and plenty of memory, this laptop is one of the flashest examples of a portable workstation.

The kit supports up to 2GB of memory, 80GB of storage and has built-in wireless support (802.11b). Solaris 9 is the standard operating system, but both Solaris 8 and Trusted Solaris are available as options.

The notebook has all the basic features a user may need. All of the Solaris server management goodies are available along with StarOffice for handling documents and creating presentations.

The Sparcle machine is relatively lightweight for a mobile workstation, coming in at around 7 pounds. Its design is more sleek than comparable 64bit portable workstations from big vendors such as IBM and has performed flawlessly thus far.

Tadpole has long been selling systems to government workers and employees at three-letter institutions such as the CIA. The company was able to meet the high security requirements of these customers and made a pretty penny off them, selling kit at well over $10,000. Now, however, Tadpole wants to attract developers and admins with lower priced gear.

The shift in strategy came about after the U.S. unit of Tadpole acquired the hardware assets off the U.K.-based parent company. The retooled Tadpole hopes to carry its reputation for making secure, reliable hardware to a higher volume market.

Tadpole wants to hitch a ride on the mobile computing bandwagon. Various companies are buying laptops to cater to the needs of a more mobile workforce and to take advantage of technology such as wireless connections.

The Sparcle machine supports wireless and security devices such as USB thumb readers, making it a secure, portable option for workers. Future products should have more security features built-in.

Giving workers a portable workstation has obvious advantages. Inspired types can take their Sparcle home and perform admin tasks or crank code without connecting into the main office. In addition, users no longer have to work on the server and share processing resources or risk bringing a shared system down.

"The bottom line is that developers have good ideas at 2 a.m," said Edward Crump, director of engineering at Tadpole. "They will pop up do their work right then and there."

Tadpole is taking the right approach given current trends in the market. Laptops improve dramatically in power and function every few months, making them a natural desktop replacement.

The big question is how many people are in need of a portable workstation -especially a portable Unix box. Over the last few years, Intel-based workstations have become the clear volume leader, leaving Sun, SGI and IBM in the dust.

Still, there is big money in Unix hardware and software and plenty of developers and admins to go around. By lowering the price of the systems, Tadpole may be able to attract more government users and even crack into the enterprise.

Sun Microsystems - the maker of Solaris and SPARC - may be one of the lead customers for Sparcle. Sun's CEO Scott McNealy is said to have a Sparcle on his desk and developers at the company may pick up the new kit.

Tadpole executives are also talking up the possibility of making new types of 64bit systems with chips other than SPARC. While exact details remain under wraps, the mention of AMD's 64bit family of processors caused heads to nod up and down.

Tadpole also appears to have some interesting server-side technology in the works. The company tried to keep its upcoming kit a secret, but we managed to squeeze the words "TCP/IP accelerator" out of one executive. It looks like Tadpole is trying to develop accelerator cards for the TCP/IP stack and for encryption that are similar to what Alacritech makes today.

The Tadpole brass has a clear vision as to where the company should head and this focus should pay off in the long run. ®

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