September 28, 1998
Whatever happened to OnNow?
By Bob O'Donnell
Now that we are in election season, it seems appropriate to look at the promises made
by our "elected" officials and see if they have been kept. I'm not referring to
politicos in this case but to the companies that have achieved a leadership role in the IT
community through our collective buying preferences, Microsoft and Intel in particular.
The promises I'm referring to are the new technology initiatives that these companies have
either developed or been actively involved in.
So starting this week I'm going to run occasional columns to let you know where these
typically over-promised and under-delivered technologies actually stand. This week I'm
going to take a look at the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) and OnNow
power management architectures that we were supposed to have all been enjoying already.
ACPI is a power management standard that was first unveiled more than a year and a half
ago. It is intended to move beyond the existing Advanced Power Management (APM)
specification by moving control over power-related issues on notebooks, desktops, and
servers from the BIOS to the operating system. OnNow is Microsoft's vision for that power
management architecture in the Windows environment. In theory, ACPI will provide better
power management than APM, and the OnNow capabilities will let computers turn on and off
instantly, which will make PCs more like other consumer electronics devices.
Like many new technologies, ACPI (and, as a result, OnNow) has been slow to appear.
First, it took the release of Windows 98 (and the still forthcoming Windows NT 5.0) to
have ACPI support in the OS. In addition, many BIOS vendors have been slow to add ACPI
support. (The BIOS still has to play a role with ACPI.) Third, peripheral vendors have
been very slow to write drivers that are ACPI-aware. Finally, applications themselves need
to be adjusted to truly take advantage of ACPI, and ISVs have shown little interest in
making these changes.
So now that at least Windows 98 is here, why still no ACPI? Well, BIOS and driver
support are still lagging, and if you don't have an updated BIOS and updated drivers, then
you cannot take advantage of ACPI. It's a classic case of the weakest link in the chain
bringing down the whole system.
Another big problem for companies that have ACPI-compliant BIOSes and peripherals for
their new machines is that Microsoft's Windows 98 OEM install kit will not automatically
install ACPI support without adding a specific install switch or adding a Registry key to
a previously created installation. (See the Microsoft article at www.microsoft.com/hwdev/desinit/retailup.htm
for more on this issue.) Limitations in hard drive OS installation equipment have kept
companies from installing ACPI support on Windows 98 machines.
The easy way to see if you have ACPI support under Windows 98 is to open the Device
Manager and look under the System Devices section for an ACPI setting. It turns out that
most new Windows 98 machines are still using APM for power management (you can't have both
APM and ACPI installed on the same machine). But even that isn't problem-free, as a recent
Livingston column pointed out.
Thankfully, there is some good news here. Apparently the inevitable Service Pack 1 for
Windows 98 (which is due before Christmas) will "turn on" ACPI support for
systems that are currently ACPI-compliant and allow OEMs to pre-install 98 with ACPI
support turned on.
Even once you have a new machine with ACPI support enabled, however, your worries are
not over. If you add a new peripheral that is not ACPI-compliant, then you could
"break" a previously functioning ACPI setup. Unless every piece in the system is
ACPI-compliant, you can't take full advantage of ACPI power savings. This problem also
explains why early tests have shown that ACPI was not offering any battery life
enhancements over APM on notebooks. (See "Windows
systems suck more juice" for more.) Another result is that some relatively new
machines will never be able to take advantage of ACPI or OnNow-- even with Windows 98 or
Windows NT 5.0 -- because there won't be an updated BIOS available or because of other
Like many new technologies, ACPI and OnNow should eventually provide a reasonable
improvement over existing possibilities and some real-world benefits. Just keep your
expectations in check and wait until 1999.
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