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Intel presses the ‘instant-on’ PC switch, again

'Seconds' tick away over the decades...

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One of the salient differences between computer electronics devices and computers is that when you press theon-button on the former, they (usually) switch on and work, whereas the computer's on-button generally functions as some kind of Pavlovian signal for you to go and get your morning coffee. This however is set to change (hoorah!) "in the next few years" (booh!), Intel VP Louis Burns told the Intel Developer Forum yesterday.

Burns (a name, surely, resonating of an early career in the heatsink testing department) "previewed an instant on/off technology," (it says here), "allowing consumers to press the 'on' button and the PC is ready in a few seconds." In addition: "If the PC loses power, this technology quickly recovers without losing data or rebooting the PC under normal operation."

Magic? Well, history tells us it'll probably have to be, given the level of success exhibited by previous heroic efforts by Wintel in this field. For more years than we care to remember (which is handy for the spnimeisters) Intel has been rolling out a baffling series of overlapping initiatives in the areas of power management and suspend and resume, while its old friends in Redmond have been lobbing in their own versions, often related, always confusing if you already thought you knew what was going on (but had forgotten by the time you got back with the coffee).

Names like "instant-on", "always-on", "OnNow" mean anything to you? Nope, nor us, but we think we once knew what we thought they were, and words like "in a few seconds" are very familiar to us indeed.

A brief trip down memory lane yields a random selection of exhibits. Here, for example, we have a piece from the April 1997 edition of Microsoft Interactive Developer, which you'll note describes OnNow as required in the PC97 specification, and happily warbles that "the biggest impact of OnNow is the instant-on capability of the PC. Like instant-on televisions, an OnNow-compliant PC would never really be off. Instead it would be in a low-power, suspended state. When the user hits the power button, the PC would be running and ready for use in less than a second. Finally, a PC that will wake up faster than my old RCA VistaVision Color TV."

This was before Windows 98 shipped, was it not, but somehow it didn't seem to pan out like that.

Over at Intel, we have a helpful nugget about InstantON, which was "incorporated into Microsoft Windows 95" and allows PCs to go into a low energy state when they're not being used, and come back on immediately when, for example, you touch a key or move the mouse. And by George, this does actually exist and has been known to work, but it's really dealing with the PC as something that's always on, rather than tackling on-off as such (NB we caution you not to get into philosophical considerations of the definition of 'off' - it'll make your head hurt).

In any event, if InstantON fixed it, we wouldn't still be promising those "few seconds" a few years down the line, would we? So onwards, swiftly, to Instantly Available Technology, whose design guide (which you can get here tells us that for business PCs the boot process is replaced with a resume process, and events ""cause the PC to resume to precisely the same system state it was in before entering a sleeping state." The home PC "appears to be off in that there is no noise due to fans or disk drives, yet it can snap back to its fully ready state within seconds of the push of a button."

This is a 1998 document, good people, and again you might note that this can, sort of, under some circumstances, work. Depending. Instantly Available and OnNow also figured in the Microsoft-Intel Easy PC initiative, sneakily defined as a "multi-year vision" (so deliverables in a specific timeframe are not entirely essential). Instantly Available and OnNow are not however foregrounded commitments of Easy PC - these are much more dubious.

Microsoft will no doubt argue that we have indeed improved "the overall experience for PC users" since 1999, although it might have to duck and dive a little in explaining what happened to the "planned consumer version of Windows due in 2000." You'd have thought that being able to push a button and have the machine ready for use was a key, very basic part of improving the overall user experience, so it's noteworthy that the announcement downgrades this to "Instantly Available/OnNow for quick resume time; faster operation with improved, task-based user interface." Not a mention of seconds there at all, but whatever happened to that "task-based user interface", which they possibly thought at the time was an easier shot?

Face it, every couple of years somebody from Wintel or thereabouts touts the prospect of a PC that comes on instantly, at the touch of a button, but then it doesn't happen so it can be talked up again in another couple of years. The non-delivery does not however entirely undermine Wintel's credibility, because actually they can argue that they have delivered it, to the extent that computers these days shut bits of hardware off when they reckon nobody's paying attention to them. Which gets them to the fallback position of defining what 'off' is anyway, tying down the critics in geeky, philosophical debate. But, erm, if they'd really delivered it already, how come they keep saying they're going to?

Hold onto that one. And here's our take on why it could go on forever. The reason consumer electronic devices generally start up as soon as you press the button is because they're single- or restricted-task devices. Their software is already loaded and ready to go when you select from an extremely restricted number of choices. PCs, on the other hand, are general-purpose devices which reconfigure themselves (i.e., load software) depending on which of a wide and extensible range of requests you make.

So, the PC that comes to life instantly when you press the button needs to have a sufficiently wide range of software sitting there, waiting just in case you select it, in whatever state it is that we choose to define as "off". Sure, you can do it, you can fit a hell of a lot of stuff into non-volatile storage for not a great deal of money these days, but why are you doing this? The logical progression is to try to shove the whole universe on a memory card just in case somebody wants it.

Which is, of course, the profoundly illogical conclusion of the PC as a general-purpose device. You'll never be able to switch a PC on and off like a consumer electronics device; what'll happen is that we'll just all switch it off, then walk away, for good. But we're not about to commit to how many seconds it'll take for that to happen. ®

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