Portable computers have moved out of the executive suites and the briefcases of field salespeople. Now they're everywhere throughout the enterprise. For many workers, a portable computer is no longer the alternative to their desktop computer, it is their desktop computer. Matthew JC. Powell and Curtis Franklin explore the brave new world of mobile computingEveryone's running. It's not that we've all started an exercise plan or we're in a blind panic over the millennium - it's simply that new business rules dictate that being close to customers is best. Add the modern emphasis on workers' quality of life, which is leading more companies to experiment with telecommuting, and you have the basic ingredients in place for an explosion in the technologies and applications that let people work from practically anywhere.
The mobile-platforms universe has grown to include systems ranging from desktop-replacement notebook compu-ters down to palm-size companions. Applications running on these platforms range from those that simply gather data to complete communications and collaboration systems such as Lotus Notes. In between are a host of client/server applications and, of course, Web browsers.
Despite the best efforts of Microsoft, which has introduced Windows CE to serve everything in the "light footprint" market, creating most mobile applications requires integrating across multiple operating systems and software-development environments. Thus, the combination of application complexity and rapid market growth has created an especially rich integrator market.
Small size, big role
Although some mobile platforms are seen as "companions" to traditional desktop computers, a growing number of companies are giving portables to people as their primary - or only - computer. In IDC's 1997 Portable Computer Survey more than 74 per cent of laptops purchased by corporate buyers were intended as primary computers. The report also indicates that the profile of portable computer users is changing from a high percentage of mobile professionals to a mix that more closely resembles the general population of workers.
Most studies have focused on laptop and notebook computers, but many vendors and resellers clearly believe that the same change and growth seen for these platforms extend into the smaller, lighter computer categories. (See box on p50 "The smallest mobiles".) Useful as they've become, mobile-computing platforms are seldom considered enterprise platforms on their own. Weaving them into a business-computing fabric means setting up a communications infrastructure that can extend beyond the traditional data network.
While there are many remote-communications options, most applications rely on the tried-and-true analog telephone lines, or POTS (plain old telephone service). The reason is clear, according to John Yoon, director of WAN product management at 3Com in Salt Lake City: "As much as people like to make fun of POTS, it is so damned ubiquitous, it will be around for a long, long time." He points out that in hotel rooms all over the world, a mobile worker is more likely to find a hair dryer than an ISDN connection.
The fact that POTS will continue to be a major factor in mobile computing is important because it underscores that raw speed performance is not the major consideration for most buyers. Yoon says that speed isn't among the top three considerations of modem purchasers. "You don't want a speed thrill when you're on the road. You want equipment to be so reliable that you plug it in and it works - every time, from anywhere," he explains. IDC's 1997 Portable Computing Survey makes the same point about laptop and notebook computer buyers: reliability and usability are far more important than speed. vAcer Acer offers computing solutions from lightweight portables up to heavy duty servers, one of the few companies to offer such a range. Within its portables, it offers a number of lines, with a balance between portability, power and affordability.
At the top of its range, it recently introduced the TravelMate 7300TE series of notebooks, with an emphasis on high performance, connectivity and multimedia. The TravelMate is designed specifically as a desktop alternative machine.
At present, the series consists of one model, based on an Intel mobile Pentium II processor, running at 266MHz with 512K "pipeline burst" secondary cache. The machine ships as standard with 64MB SDRAM, expandable to 128MB, 4GB hard drive and 20x CD-ROM. For graphics, the TravelMate has a 13.3in TFT screen, capable of operating at XGA resolution (1024 x 768) and supporting 16-bit colour. It also ships standard with a 128-bit graphics accelerator and 4MB of Video RAM.
The machine's multimedia credentials come from a Sound Blaster Pro compatible 16-bit sound system with inbuilt "3D audio" enhancement and internal stereo speakers. The machine also has line in and out ports for connection to VCRs, TVs and other home entertainment equipment. Also included is a USB port for connection to a range of USB peripherals, which are generally expected to appear later in the year. The swappable expansion bay allows users to install an optional DVD drive, and the TravelMate can handle over 30 frames per second MPEG-2 playback.
Pricing is available on application.
The workhorse of Acer's portable range is the Extensa series, which has recently been enhanced with the Extensa 700 range, designed with an emphasis on convenience and expandability. The Extensa 700 series is the machine that Acer expects enterprises to implement on a wide scale.
The machine runs on a 233MHz Pentium equipped with Intel's MMX technology and 256K "pipeline burst" secondary cache. It ships standard with 32MB of RAM, expandable to 128MB, a 2.1GB hard drive and 20x CD-ROM. Smaller and lighter than the TravelMate, the Extensa has a 12.1in SVGA screen capable of supporting 800 x 600 pixels in 24-bit colour. Like the TravelMate, the Extensa includes 128-bit graphics acceleration, 16-bit Sound Blaster-compatible audio and internal stereo speakers. It also includes a USB port, but video in/out is via S-video only.
Pricing is available on application.
Compaq has expanded its enterprise reach recently through the acquisition of Digital, giving it a powerful argument for corporate adoption. Its portable range is similarly extensive, with very low priced offerings ranging up to very high powered desktop replacement models.
At the high end, Compaq has recently introduced its Armada 7800 family, engineered for extremely high performance graphics and multimedia. Based on a 266MHz mobile Pentium II with 512K of level 2 cache, the Armada 7800 is also one of the first notebooks to include the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP), a recent enhancement to Intel's desktop board designs. The machines are also among the first to use a 66MHz internal bus specifically for graphics acceleration. An S3 ViRGE/MX graphics accelerator is also included with 4MB of video RAM.
The machines ship with 64MB RAM, expandable to 256MB (although the company says the 128MB RAM modules required to expand the machine to its fullest are not yet available). Standard storage is either a 5GB or 8GB hard drive, and 24x CD-ROM is included on all models. Display size is either 13.3in or 14.1in, with both models supporting 1024 x 768 pixel resolution in 24-bit colour.
The Armada 7800 series ships for a RRP of $8995 or $10,496, depending upon configuration.
For enterprises looking to deploy a single vendor throughout the company or for small businesses, Compaq also offers a range of very affordable general-purpose portables. The bottom end of the Armada range is the Armada 1500 series, designed for light weight and portability. The processors on board range from an entry-level 150MHz Pentium MMX to a 266MHz MMX, with either 16MB or 32MB of standard RAM, expandable to either 80MB or 96MB. Storage starts at a 2.1GB hard drive and moves up to 4GB, while all machines have an integrated CD-ROM drive. All machines in the Armada 1500 family ship with 12.1in TFT screens, except for the Armada 198DT, which has a 13.3in screen. All of the machines offer software support for MPEG-1 playback, and 16-bit stereo sound.
Compaq also bundles exclusive management software to reduce the costs associated with managing its Armada notebooks on a network.
The Armada 1500 range retails for between $2695 and $5495 depending upon configuration.
The leading notebook vendor in the market does not offer desktop or server computer models in Australia at this stage, a focus which allows it to focus on serving the portable market with a wide variety of solutions tailored to different customers' needs. It recently dropped prices across its entire range, from high-end desktop replacements to ultra-light sub-notebooks. The rationalisation also saw it remove its Tecra 780 and 500 and Satellite 480 and 490 models from the line-up. A Toshiba spokesperson has indicated to ARN that the company may introduce a palmtop design before too long.
With all that rationalisation, the company also managed to launch its new range of Satellite 320 and 330 notebooks recently, its offerings for the very lightweight entry-level market. The new Satellites are based around either 233MHz MMX Pentium processors or 266MHz MMX processors, both with 32MB of RAM and 512K of level 2 cache as standard.
Both models include 12.1in screens, with the CDT models utilising active matrix thin film transistor (TFT) technology and the CDS models using less expensive DSTN screens. A 3.8GB hard drive is standard on all models, as are 20x CD-ROM drives and USB interfaces.
The new Satellite models are aggressively priced, starting from only $3314 RRP.
At the higher end, Toshiba has just relaunched its Portege 7000 notebooks, with an emphasis on industrial design. The new machine features a metallic finish, texturised rubber trim and chrome detailing, to differentiate it from the standard grey of other notebooks on the market.
Its beauty is more than skin deep, though, with a 266MHz Pentium II rumbling under the hood. It ships standard with 32MB RAM, a 4.1GB hard drive, and a 12.1in TFT screen for RRP starting from $7033.
The Tecra 8000 is Toshiba's obvious effort to woo large corporations with a widely configurable platform which can be implemented at a number of different levels in the enterprise. The machine comes with a Pentium II processor, in either 233 or 266MHz speeds, and a 300MHz machine is coming in September. It ships with either 32MB or 64MB of RAM, 3.8GB or 7.6GB hard drive, and the screen can be 12.1in, 13.3in or 14.1in TFT. Toshiba claims that deploying the same basic platform in different configurations will help IS managers reduce support costs and thereby reduce the total cost of ownership of the machines.
The Tecra 8000 starts at $6330 RRP.
The smallest mobiles
Roger Gulrajani, product manager of PC companion devices at Microsoft, says that there are many examples of major application projects using palmtop devices.
An auto manufacturer, for instance, collects defect-tracking information with palmtops on the assembly line. And a stock-brokerage house gives wireless-communication palmtops to brokers and traders to enable near-real-time communications from around the organisation.
Improved usability is a key reason for the growth in palmtop-computing platforms. The popularity of these small computers grew out of a desire to carry personal data, such as appointments and contacts, in the most portable format.
The earliest models to be viewed as real platforms for more than basic personal-information-management extensions were Hewlett-Packard's 100LX and Apple's Newton. The two devices were worlds apart in their approaches to user interfaces. The 100LX was a tiny, keyboard-input, MS-DOS computer; the Newton used pen input and handwriting recognition together with a GUI. Each approach has persisted-just look at Windows CE-based handheld computers and 3Com's PalmPilot.
Microsoft's goal with Windows CE is to create a single programming and user environment, from servers to palmtops. Analysts point to the trend of notebooks as primary machines and the desire of some users for greater functionality. Eventually, handheld PCs with very small keyboards and colour displays will be available.
The PalmPilot takes a different approach. "There will be some evolution in the PalmPilot, though you'll never see it get larger - only smaller," says Lee Epting, business-development manager at Palm Computing. Rather than seeking a single programming environment for all platforms, Epting says, Palm Computing looked to create a platform on which it is easy to build applications. Dedicated "conduits" from Oracle, Sybase, and Lotus (for Notes) that synchronise data between servers and PalmPilots extend the platform into the realm of enterprise applications.
Palmtops and laptops, whether keyboard or pen-input, offer platforms that are available to help integrators. They present a means to get data into a usable form and, literally, into the hands of users. As business practices evolve, those hands are becoming more widespread, and the opportunities for resellers are spreading along with them.
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