E-businesses will get smarter

Futuristic PC design, e-commerce success stories, and a glimpse at computing five years from now were among highlights at the eBusiness Conference in San Jose, California, this week.

Intel Vice President Sean Maloney surprised no one by touting the need for faster systems. The easiest way for businesses to ensure uptime on the Internet is to "throw processing power at it," he says.

Articles appear in the newspaper every week about some company having a problem with its Web site because it couldn't handle a spike in demand, Maloney says, in what seems a slight exaggeration. (Okay, perhaps this occurs weekly somewhere in the world!) Intel's latest solution for servers is a four-way Pentium III Xeon--that's four Pentium III processors working in concert. Later this year, companies will ship systems based on an eight-way Pentium III Xeon, Maloney says. And late in 2000, manufactures will go all the way to 512-way servers for the most demanding e-commerce, data warehousing, and other processor-intensive tasks, he says.

These systems will use a variety of operating systems, including Linux, according to Maloney. While maintaining its strong partnership with Microsoft, Intel has invested in a Linux distributor and works with a number of Unix vendors.

Intel also featured one of its concept PC designs, promoted as the face of e-business five years from now. These are intended to get vendors away from the common, boring, off-white box. Code-named Twister, the shiny-metallic, curved system displayed here houses a Pentium III processor in a case that's a fraction the size of the typical desktop tower. Vendors will release a number of new PC designs by this November or December, Maloney says.

In Intel's demo, "Dick," a sales rep for a fictional camera company, uses voice recognition to interact with his PC, speaking to an on-screen animated software agent called Cleo (who talks back). When Dick asks Cleo to check his messages, a list of messages pops up, each with a picture of the person who sent it. Dick retrieves a voice-mail message by clicking on a picture.

Dick next asks Cleo to schedule an appointment with someone and Cleo responds, "There is a scheduling conflict with that time. Would you like to reschedule?" Later, Dick engages in a videoconference from his PC and quickly and easily shares information online with another user, updating price lists in real time.

The interface in this futuristic setup is nothing like Windows. In addition to using the Cleo animated agent, Dick finds information by clicking on various "infospheres," each a group of icons labeled with Messages, Contacts, and the like.

"We see the PC as becoming more of an assistant that can reduce some of the mundane tasks and also anticipate the user's needs," Maloney says. "The continuous-agent technology is ready to search for information whenever you need it."

While Intel's futuristic scenario takes a sizeable leap in ease of use and richness of information, Maloney has no doubt that it's coming. "If you look at the Web five years ago, there was really no business content; it was all academic," Maloney says. "The rate of change is not going to slow down, and the network and servers will be key elements in making this possible."