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Can I have an email quickie? – Phoenix says, ‘Yes’

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Phoenix Technologies this week has kicked off what will prove to be a protracted battle to own the PC before the OS loads with a new version of its FirstWare Assistant software that gives customers easy access to email.

Unveiled at CeBIT, the latest version of FirstWare Assistant lets users check their Microsoft Outlook email, calendar and contacts data without booting Windows XP. By holding down the "F" key, users get instant access to this information - technology thought to be ideal for checking up on appointments, recalling a phone number or pulling up directions while on the road. Phoenix is just one of a number of companies including Intel that is trying to beat Windows to the punch.

"Users typically spend several minutes to boot up their machine and then boot up Outlook," said Michael Goldgof, senior vice president of marketing at Phoenix. "Now, they can turn on their machine and a screen comes up that gives them immediate access to information that is synched up."

Older versions of FirstWare Assistant, currently shipping in some HP Tablet PCs, did not give customers access to their email. With the Outlook function added in, Phoenix is hoping a number of OEMs will bundle the software with their laptops or make it available as a download. Computers with the software should start appearing before mid-year, although Goldgof declined to name any specific PC vendor.

Phoenix's approach differs to that of Intel and its partner Insyde Software. The two companies have developed a second LCD screen that sits on the outside of a laptop and shows available Wi-Fi networks and the same mail, calendar and contact information.

The first company to pick up the technology developed by Intel and Insyde will be Lenovo - the Western brand name of Chinese PC giant Legend, which will roll out a laptop with the external LCD screen later this year.

Phoenix's technology has some advantages in that it doesn't require any additional parts to function well. It's simply cutting out the middleman to give quick access to pretty key data. With Windows XP running, users can configure the FirstWare software to save X days of calendar or email data. In addition, the software will not tax a laptop's battery life as the system is only on for a few moments, as the user finds needed information.

By contrast, Intel's Extended Mobile Access (EMA) technology keeps the laptop in a half-power state. This will eat up more battery life, but it also keeps a users' information truly up-to-date by downloading new data via a Wi-Fi or Ethernet connections. With the Phoenix software, you are only getting information downloaded during the last sync.

Over time, Intel believes it can operate the second LCD using only one-tenth of the power needed to run a notebook.

Both Phoenix and Intel have long-term visions for this type of technology. In the next couple of years, consumers will be able to start up music players, games and other software without Windows' help.

In the meantime, Phoenix is simply billing its software as a tool for eliminating the PDA. Why carry both a laptop and handheld around when you get instant access to the same data on the notebook?

This is a nice move for Phoenix as it tries to move beyond its BIOS roots. ®

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