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.comment: I Want One! - page 2

Time for the Greed Fest

  • December 19, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Let me make an assertion right up front here: PCMCIA sucks. There is no way to make it unsuck. It is a terrible standard and there is no way of fixing it.

I'll give you an example: A notebook machine with a cool combination modem/ethernet card. The machine offers a hibernate mode, meaning that it copies the contents of RAM plus video RAM to a file (or partition) on the hard drive when, for instance, you close the cover, then powers down. Except for the PCMCIA stuff, which continues to draw juice from the battery -- and which probably doesn't reinitialize when you recover from hibernation.

Now. This standard was not developed in a vacuum, even though it seems as if it were. The uses to which computers are put, and the uses to which people would like to put them are well known. A standard for devices to be employed almost exclusively in portable, battery-operated machines would have to have been designed by the terminally clueless to exhibit the kind of behavior that's allowed.

It would be one thing if it were necessary, but it's another thing when it isn't, and a card that draws power in a powered-down computer, and that fails to reinitialize on recovery from hibernation, is not necessary. These cards don't need power all the time -- they don't, for instance, have any when they're kicking around the bottom of your bag, and an ability to initialize on the fly is what hot plugging is all about. (And to digress a little -- why is it not standard to include with every card a decent, heavy polyethylene case for the thing and, absent that, why are they not readily available on the aftermarket? Seems pretty obvious, don't you think? A lot of dirt and debris can get into those little connecting holes.)

Perhaps it would be possible to start from scratch and come up with a better PCMCIA standard. But a better idea still would be to cook up some standards for notebook computer components so that users could pick and choose what the computers themselves would contain, internally, thereby obviating the need for PCMCIA. We already know that the stuff, from SCSI adapters to modems to network cards, can be made very, very small. And from the days long before the PC we have known how to plug things into a standard bus. Many of us have been fiddling around inside notebook machines for awhile now, chiefly to upgrade memory, install aftermarket built-in modems, and to put in bigger hard drives. In notebooks, this usually involves more than a little alchemy. But there's no reason why there couldn't be an open standard for internal notebook peripherals, as we have in desktop machines. Nor would this cramp the style of those who seek to produce even quite small subnotebooks. It would even be possible to power these up and down as needed, as has been the case with internal modems at least since the mid 1980s, to extend battery life.

This kind of standard would be a great benefit to users, of course, because they could buy only what they need and upgrade as they go along. It would make resale easier (and most machines are sold by people buying other machines, so this would not ruin new notebook sales), because people could get an older machine and festoon it with the latest and greatest geegaws.

IBM has played with some of this modularity, as have some others, but nothing on the order of industry standardization. I suppose notebook makers thought that PCMCIA would be adequate to the task. It isn't. So my wish list includes an industry-wide rethinking of portable computer architecture, making everything as modular as possible.

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