SAN FRANCISCO - One more of the world's biggest technology companies is clamoring to enter the growing market for pint-sized computers targeted mainly for pint-sized customers. Hewlett-Packard Co., the No. 1 seller of personal computers worldwide, said Tuesday it's throwing its weight behind a new class of miniaturized laptops, a fledgling market already populated with products from Intel Corp., the world's largest semiconductor company, and Asustek Computers Inc., the world's largest maker of computer motherboards.
The machines are so new the industry hasn't settled on a name for low-cost and scaled-down laptops used primarily for surfing the Internet and performing other basic functions like word processing.
Intel has labeled them "netbooks," and it expects more than 50 million netbooks to be in circulation by 2011.
HP executives say their new machines, which go on sale later this month, are an important piece of the Palo Alto-based company's effort to build market share in schools, where machines had to be smaller and cheaper without losing too many functions.
The companies also expect adults to cotton to the idea of buying two laptops - a lightweight one just for Web browsing on the go and the full-power machine for the home or office. But industry executives acknowledge that the market is untested and that no one knows what demand will be once the machines are deployed widely.
HP's foray comes in the form of a new computer called a "Mini-Note" that weighs less than 3 pounds with a screen that measures 8.9 inches diagonally. The machines start at under $500 for a Linux-based model. Prices go up for Windows Vista models with faster processors.
The processors HP is using are made by Via Technologies Inc., the distant third-ranked player in the microprocessor space, and come in clock speeds up to 1.6 gigahertz. The inclusion is a big win for Via, which trails Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. by a wide margin in the microprocessor market.
HP executives say the only major feature its Mini-Note lacks is an optical drive for ingesting DVDs and CD-ROMs, which can be bought separately. But they say many schools requested the drives be left out to prevent students from playing unauthorized games.
The Mini-Note will compete primarily with Intel's Classmate PCs - which are designed by Intel and feature Intel chips but are built and branded by other companies - and Asustek's Eee PC.
To a lesser extent, they also will go up against the XO laptop from the Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit One Laptop per Child, which is intended primarily for schoolchildren in developing countries.
Intel says it has sold "tens of thousands" of Classmate PCs since they went on sale last year. And OLPC says it has sold hundreds of thousands of the XO. Figures were not immediately available for sales of the Eee.