With many people having to work at home or on the way to and from work, notebook sales are going through the roof - and notebooks are also replacing the desktop at work. The main inhibitors to buying notebooks as a desktop replacement, such as price and technology lag, are becoming less and less of an obstacle. Also, the traditional notebook weaknesses, such as problems with power, security and theft issues or data synchronisation, have, as Tamara Plakalo discovers, been more or less solved.
A social change is sweeping through the industrialised world, significantly redefining the way people organise their work and private lives.
While a typical day at work would have translated into eight hours of productive labour 20 year ago, the work hours in the West have been steadily increasing over the past two decades, necessitating a convergence of "professional" and "private" lives. But, within the spatial and temporal confines of this convergence, a technological aid was conceived that has enabled the emergence of the "mobile" and flexible 24-hour-a-day worker, a tool that many still describe as a "toy" and an "e-mail machine", that yuppies call "my NB" and that IT managers and top salesmen dub an "ultimate productivity generator". The rest of us know the said tool simply as "the notebook".
Now, before you start questioning the point of using the sociology of technology in a feature about notebooks, allow me to propose that the above quasi-scientific gobbledygook might be one of the more convincing pitches you could use to sell mobile computers. Moreover, if you base your marketing strategy on the premise that notebooks can and should be sold as a replacement for desktop computers, you'll be backing a long-term winner. Why? Because everybody who is anybody - from vendors and analysts to customers and second-hand notebook resellers - says so!
From NB to DT and back. Technologically, there is no doubt that notebooks and desktops are starting to converge, causing many a reseller an occasional "identity crisis".
The problems stem from the still-present maturity gap between the two. On the one hand, there are the affordable and reliable desktops that matured several years ago. On the other, market predictions side with notebooks, even though they are only now reaching the maturity level characterised by low performance failure and reasonable pricing usually associated with the desktop market. So, what should a reseller do?
Most resellers do not consider sticking with desktops and contending with the rapidly declining profit margins in both corporate and SOHO markets to be an exciting prospect. But opting for a market that appears to sustain less than a 10 per cent mark-up and offer few opportunities for follow-on might seem equally degrading.
Add to the equation the fact that the notebook market is regularly described as "more difficult", indeed "more savage", than the PC market, and it becomes clear that no sociological mumbo-jumbo can sound impressive enough to convince a reseller that taking an active role in facilitating a faster adoption of the notebook as a desktop replacement (and creating value-added services that can be sold with that concept) is a financially feasible option.
Richard Verren, director of Optima reseller Dynotechnics, believes this apparent lack of enthusiasm for the notebook market has much to do with vendors' merciless push for their share of the market and their selfish disregard for the survival of the information technology foot soldiers - resellers.
"Single-digit margins are something that vendors such as Compaq and Toshiba have been working dealers into accepting for a long time now, and a lot of resellers have no other option but to fight competition by bringing their profits down to as little as $50," he claims.
Yet there is another side to this story, namely the widespread misconception among resellers that a notebook is a "cash-and-carry" item that requires little involvement with a customer after the initial sale.
"Dealers often don't take into account that the notebook market in Australia hasn't even reached 50 per cent yet," asserts Verren. "That means that if they sell one notebook now and service it well, opportunities for the sale of higher-margin products, such as portable printers, scanners or network cards, as well as further sales of notebooks and services, will follow." But to profit, you need to have faith first!
Market trends. Consider this: an International Data Corporation (IDC) study of the PC market has revealed that one in five computers sold in Australia last year were notebooks. While the local market absorbed some 266,000 units in 1998, it is expected that this year Australians will buy over 300,000 new or second-hand notebooks. Further-more, by 2001, they should represent one out of every three computers sold in the country.
Knowing that 45 per cent of notebooks are already sold as a replacement for desktops, it is fair to assume that well over 50 per cent of notebooks sold in the next couple of years will be expected to fulfil the dual role of a mobile and stationary computing tool.
OK, so it may be true that this growth will not be spread evenly and that the notebook price may still impede its faster growth in the market. However, the reduction in the total cost of ownership and the closure of the technological gap between desktops and notebooks will warrant a larger initial investment, as long as notebooks can serve both as a home and office desktop replacement.
"Despite different perceptions, our largest markets are small-to-medium enterprises and education, with SOHO the fastest-growing segment," reveals Antonio Leone, Acer's product manager for portable PCs, in an attempt to explain who the channel should target when positioning notebooks as an alternative to desktops.
"There are several reasons for this market break-up, such as the fact that technologies that used to appear only in desktops now appear in notebooks almost simultaneously."
Indeed, improvements in the processing power, manageability and screen technology of notebooks have been so rapid over the last few years that little objection can be raised when comparing their performance with your average desktop PC.
"The main inhibitors to buying notebooks as a desktop replacement are becoming less and less of an obstacle," says Mark Whittard, national marketing manager for Toshiba Australia and New Zealand.
"Intel, for example, has announced it will start releasing all its new technologies on notebooks and PCs at the same time, and, while price is still a differential, notebooks are closing in on desktops fast, even in that respect."
And what about the traditional notebook weaknesses, such as power, security and theft issues or data synchronisation? Both Leone and Whittard say these problems are being dealt with successfully and expect them to be eradicated within six to 12 months.
Leone illustrates the point: "Yes, notebooks used to be underpowered," he concedes, "but the notebook battery's life has already been extended significantly to improve power management capabilities."
Notebook is desktop. Instead of dwelling on negatives, most vendors will point to portability, mobility, upgradeability, flexibility, convenience and space efficiency as the factors that will definitely diffuse notebooks in the desktop market.
"Notebooks perform well in all these categories," says Leone. "They have better connectivity and docking options and they are more robust in terms of supporting different operating systems than ever before."
More importantly, as the sexiest and most popular productivity tools around, notebooks are increasingly becoming the choice of the corporate and education markets that are often rating them ahead of your usual four-peripherals-PC-workstation.
"A lot of companies are driven by one computer policy and if that one computer doubles the productivity of its user, as notebooks do, businesses will want to take advantage of that," Leone explains.
"On the other hand, the 'clever country' policy is seeing more notebooks in the education sector, simply because they're easy to use and upgrade."
The downside, according to Verren, is that both the corporate and education market go for the best price and that will, once again, mean single-figure profit margins in the sale of hardware. However, once you're in, the opportunities to add value by offering original docking and software combinations, outsourcing companies' help desk and hardware replacement services, or developing and providing remote access or infrastructure solutions, are endless. And this is where margins are poised to hit double figures again.
"It is not hard to show that notebooks these days deliver immediate returns in terms of productivity increases, total cost of ownership and communication capabilities," Whittard offers.
"But whether productivity-sensitive businesses, the price-sensitive SOHO market, slow-adopting SMEs, and eager, but rigorous, government purchasing departments will buy notebooks as a desktop replacement will ultimately depend on a dealer's ability to provide a myriad of services that today's customers expect."
Selling notebooks as a desktop replacementMARKET DRIVERS1. Increased productivity2. Access to the Web - better connectivity3. Low total cost of ownership4. Low down-time rates.
5. More mobility and flexibility
2. Perceived technology lag
3. Security and theft issues
4. Data synchronisation
1. 30 per cent of notebooks are sold to mobile professionals2. 25 per cent of customers buy notebooks as a supplement to their desktops3. 45 per cent of notebooks today are sold as a desktop replacement, as opposed to only 16 per cent in 1992GARTNER GROUP FIGURES1. The average cost of using a notebook as a desktop replacement in the US is $US9400 (20 per cent mobile, 80 per cent office use)2. The average cost of using a notebook as a mobile-computing tool is $US12,000 (80 per cent mobile, 20 per cent office use).
3. If an employee spends one hour a day working at home, the cost of a notebook used as a desktop replacement would be repayed in productivity within one year.
What's new from Acer
Typical usage: desktop substitute performance portables.
Intel 266MHz Pentium II processor
AGP graphics support and dual view 14.1in LCD screenDesktop-like manageability, expandabilitySony Lithium Ion SMART graphite battery (57WH, five plus hours of battery life)64MB SDRAM system memory, expandable to 128MB SDRAM4MB-equivalent video memory4GB storage capacity and modular 1.44in floppy disk driveSound Blaster Pro-compatible 16-bit stereo sound84-key keyboard and EasyTouch touchpad pointing device56Kbps fax/modem card with cellular capabilitySeveral connectivity and communication optionsBundled software:
Windows 95, Lotus SmartSuite, Quite boot, etcThree-year limited warrantyWeight: 3.2kgDimensions: 309 mm x 240 mm x 56 mmPower-On and BIOS password protection and Kensington Lock readyTravelMate 310Typical usage: lightweight ultra-portable mobile computer.
Intel Pentium 233MHz MMX processor
32KB primary cache
8.4in Active matrix SVGA LCD screen
Lithium Ion 36WH power management with four hours total available battery life32MB EDO system memory3.2GB Enhanced IDE hard disk drive1.44MB external hot-pluggable floppy disk drive24-speed maximum external CD-ROM driveSound Blaster Pro-compatible 16-bit audio card83-key keyboard with Synaptic touchpad pointing device56Kbps integrated fax/modemone-year limited warranty1.3kg236 mm x 175 mm x 36 mmPower-On and BIOS password protection, Kensington LockWhat's new from compaqArmada 7800 seriesTypical usage: office desktop replacement.
Intel Pentium II 266/300/366MHz processor64MB high-performance Synchronous DRAM (SDRAM) standard, expandable to 256MB14.1in CTFT 1024 x 768 DisplayLiIon with over three hours battery powerViRGE/MX graphics accelerator with 4MB of SGRAMIntegrated v90/K56flex modem and AC AdaptorRemovable 3.5in 1.44MB diskette and 14GB hard driveDVD-ROM Drive1High-capacity 5GB, 8GB or 14GB SMART hard drive with DriveLock security and Prefailure WarrantyWindows 95 or Windows NT Workstation 4.0 operating systems preinstalledOptional ArmadaStation expansion base for full desktop equivalent functionalityArmada 1750 seriesTypical usage: low-end all-in-one portable.
Intel Pentium II 366MHz
Integrated 256KB Cache
14.1in CTFT 1024 x 768 display
Removable 3.5in 1.44MB diskette and 6.4GB hard drive24-speed Max CD-ROM1Integrated v.90/K56flex modem and AC Adaptor2TouchPad & LiIon BatteryPreinstalled Windows 95What's new from NECVersa LX seriesTypical usage: high-level corporate or IT professionals.
Intel Pentium II 233/266/300MHz MMX processors32KB internal cache64MB or 32MB SDRAM pre-installed memory6.4 GB, 5.0GB or 3.2 GB storage with 1.44MB floppy disk drive and 24-speed CD-ROM12.1in SVGA and 13.3/14.1in SGA TFT displaysWindows 95/98 or NT 4.0 operating systems and bundled software12-cell LiIOn primary battery with three to four hours life, 52WHSize: 309mm x 254mm x 45 mmWeight: 3.35-3.59kgWide connectivity and expansion possibilitiesThree-year parts and labour limited warrantyPower-on password and Kensington Lock SlotVersa NoteTypical usage: for customers who need a powerful notebook.
Intel Pentium II 233MHz mobile with MMX technology32MB SO-DIMM DRAM (expandable to 128MB)3.2GB Ultra DMA HDD, Integrated 1.44MB Floppy Disk Drive, 24 speed CD-ROM all-in-one12.1in SVGA TFT 13.3in XGA TFT display299 x 247 x 39mm2.95kg8-cell Lithium Ion battery, three hours lifePower-on password, antivirus software, Kensington security lock slotThree-year warrantyWhat's new from toshibaTecra 8000Typical usage: corporate customers and IT managers.
Intel Pentium II 333/366MHz processor
64MB memory expandable to 256MB
10GB hard disk drive storage
14.1in active Matrix TFT display
2.5MB integrated SGRAM
84-key sculptured keyboard with Accupoint integrated pointing deviceYamaha OPL3SA3 Sound ProcessorCD-ROM or DVD driveIntegrated 56Kbps modemLiIOn power management with over three hours battery life and 4.05WH311mm x 42mm x 254mm2.9kgKeyboard lock, power-on passwords, Kensington cable lock slotSatellite 2520CDTTypical usage: entry-level SOHO and SME market notebook.
AMD K6-2 300MHz processor
64MB standard memory expandable to 160MB4GB hard disk storage capacity with integrated 1.44 floppy disk drive, 24 speed CD-ROM drive12.1in colour TFT display84-key sculptured keyboard with Accupoint integrated pointing deviceYamaha OPL3SA3 Sound ProcessorLiIOn power management with battery life of over three hours and 40WHLess than 3kgWide range compatibilityKeyboard lock, power-on passwords, Kensington cable lock slotContacts:
Acer Tel (02) 8762 3000
Compaq Tel 1300 368 369
NEC Tel 13 1632
Toshiba Tel (02) 9887 6000