Hewlett-Packard will begin shipping blade PC systems using Transmeta's Efficeon processors beginning in March of 2004, the company will announce Thursday. HP also plans to begin offering pay-per-use plans for its business printers and Itanium 2 servers.

Hewlett-Packard had been toying with the idea of selling blade PCs for months, running a number of pilot programs that used HP's ProLiant BL10e server systems as blade PCs, according to Nick van der Zweep, HP's director of virtualisation and utility computing.

Though the blade concept has met with some success in server farms and high performance computing, the idea of using blades, which are stripped-down systems packed very densely into a common chassis, to power desktops remains relatively untested. HP is the first major vendor to commit to a blade PC offering.

Unlike server blades, blade PCs run a desktop operating system and are accessed via a device on the user's desktop -- in HP's case the HP Thin Client -- that provides the monitor, keyboard and the networking facilities that connect the user to the blade system running in the data centre.

The blade PCs are particularly appealing to businesses such as call centers that have a large number of employees working in shifts, according to van der Zweep. The blades can be centrally managed, and in the event of a system failure, a new system can easily be re-assigned to the users. "You only need one blade for each concurrent user, because the blades will jump personality with each user," he said.

HP's blade PCs will be sold as part of its Consolidated Client Infrastructure offering, which, for about US$1,500 per seat, will include an HP Thin Client device that will connect to a blade PC running Microsoft Windows XP professional, and a StorageWorks networked attached storage device.

Also on Thursday, HP will begin offering pay-per-use pricing for most of its commercial printer products, according to van der Zweep. The company also plans to sell pay-per-use plans for its Integrity Superdome, rx8620 and rx7620 Itanium 2 servers, starting in January, he said.

HP already offers pay-per-use plans for its StorageWorks XP arrays and its PA-RISC Unix servers.