Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Instant Boot-Up

A Silicon Valley startup bypasses Windows to start computers faster, getting people online in seconds.

Surfing in seconds: This screenshot is an example of what Splashtop users could see seconds after they turn on their computers. From here, they can choose to boot the original operating system, edit the settings for the software that initiates the operating system (the BIOS), or shut off the computer.
Credit: DeviceVM
See screenshots of how Splashtop works.

Many office workers have the same morning routine: turn on the computer, then grab coffee, catch up with coworkers, or look at paperwork while Windows boots up. Others save time, but waste energy, by keeping their machines on all the time.

Now Device VM, a startup based in Silicon Valley, has a product that circumvents the everlasting boot-up. The company has recently released a tiny piece of software that, when integrated with common computer hardware, gives users the option to boot either Windows or a faster, less-complex operating system called Splashtop. Depending on the hardware and Splashtop settings, a person using the software--which is based on the open-source operating system Linux--can start surfing the Web or watching a DVD in less than 20 seconds, and, in some cases, in less than five.

DeviceVM has formed partnerships with several hardware manufacturers, and Splashtop is already available on hardware from Asus, a manufacturer of motherboards, the main circuit boards inside computers. Within the next couple of months, desktops and laptops with Splashtop-enabled hardware will be available to consumers, says David Speiser, director of business development at DeviceVM.

Lengthy boot-ups on Windows machines occur for a number of reasons, explains Ben Chong, senior architect at DeviceVM. "First of all," he says, "Windows is pretty big." This means that it has megabytes of instructions to follow--from opening up applications to checking what's in memory. Most computers also come with extra software that Windows automatically loads at startup. "In many cases, Windows PC comes with a whole bunch of stuff you don't need," Chong says. "Starting all of the programs takes a lot of time." (Microsoft wasn't able to comment on Windows' startup times before this article went up.)

Hitting the power button on any computer loads software called the basic input-output system, or BIOS, which is often stored in flash memory. The BIOS checks for hardware drivers and sets up the operating system. Splashtop is embedded in the BIOS, so it starts before the operating system is up and running. The user sees a screen with a simple interface offering a handful of options, including launching the Firefox Web browser, a media player, Skype, or an instant-messaging program, or allowing Windows to boot. The applications are stored in a flash-memory chip on the motherboard, so they can be quickly accessed--even if the hard drive fails, Speiser notes.

DeviceVM is not alone in its effort to give people a way to bypass Windows. Phoenix Technologies, a company that develops BIOSes that run on many computers, recently announced a technology called HyperSpace, a lightweight operating system that launches at the same time Windows does. (DeviceVM is also developing a version of Splashtop that can boot alongside Windows.) HyperSpace is expected to be available in laptops in the second half of this year.

For its part, Intel is developing both hardware and software that will shorten boot times. "We see boot time as something in which there is room for improvement," says Steve Grobman, director of Intel's business-client architecture group. Intel is currently shipping Intel Turbo Memory, which boots Windows faster by caching data in flash memory instead of on the hard drive. It also consumes less power, which is a concern in mobile devices. Grobman says that Turbo Memory works in conjunction with software coming from Microsoft, called ReadyDrive and ReadyBoost.

Grobman adds that Splashtop also resembles the lightweight operating systems found on some mobile devices, which allow access to only a few applications at a time. "I think Splashtop's capability is the same concept, but it's making it a little bit more general purpose," since it works on desktop and laptop machines, Grobman says. "It's a positive development in that it's making the PC easier to use in certain circumstances."

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