Notebook computers have come a long way from the days when you were lucky to get a diskette drive, let alone the full multimedia and connectivity offered in today's models. Today's notebooks not only compete with desktops feature-for-feature, but are becoming increasingly price competitive too. New battery technology and purpose-built, low-consumption components mean these mobile offices are eminently usable. Yet, they're equally at home on the desktop or the airline tray table. Manufacturers say notebooks' share of the personal computer market is increasing, so Australian Reseller News spoke to some of them to find out what they are offering in terms of product and what assistance they provide the reseller who markets their machines By Durelle FryUltralightsFor highly mobile users, weight and "thinness" are important factors, so larger screen sizes are not a priority. While ultralights (less than 2.5kg) still represent only a small segment of the notebook market, that percentage is growing as the price difference narrows.
Machines in this category include Digital's HiNote Ultra II, IBM's ThinkPad 560, Compaq's Armada 4100, Hewlett-Packard's Omnibook 800 series, Toshiba's Portg 650 CT and 660 CDT, and Texas Instruments' Extensa 900.
Digital's HiNote Ultra has been on the market since November 1994. It is a Pentium 150 which weighs 1.8kg and has 1.4Gb of disk.
Acer's contribution in the ultralight area is the AcerNote Light Multimedia, a Pentium 133 notebook with 16Mb of RAM and a 1.3Gb hard disk. It has an 11.3in Super VGA colour screen, a lithium ion battery and a built-in 10-speed CD-ROM drive with sound. Acer says this machine is normally bought by small to medium-sized businesses.
IBM describes its ThinkPad 560 as a "true ultra portable for mobility and connectivity options". Tim Gunnell, product manager for ThinkPads, says that with 2.1Gb of hard disk, it cannot be considered as a "subnotebook".
Apple has just made its lightweight Duo obsolete and is investigating improvements which can be made before releasing a new lightweight machine. Bruce Lakin, general manager of Toshiba Australia, believes that all manufacturers are heading towards lighter weight machines but "size of components is the limiting factor".
He argues that there is still a trend towards bigger screens and "these are heavier". Conversely, lighter plastics and lithium ion batteries contribute to weight reduction.
MMX (Multimedia Extension) Pentium chips are now offered by most notebook manufacturers. The chip is designed to boost multimedia performance by enhancing audio, video and graphics processing. The limiting factor is that there are still few applications written to take advantage of this new technology. Intel officials claim that regular applications will have a performance gain of 10Ð20 per cent over the traditional Pentium chip. MMX-enhanced applications will have as much as a 60 per cent boost over the Pentium.
James Schwabe, senior vice-president of port-ables and peripherals for NEC Computer Systems, believes that Windows NT will be a big issue in 1997. He says that many corporate users have waited to go to NT instead of Windows 95. "We think that will start a massive repurchase cycle for hardware as they transition to NT."
Lakin of Toshiba does not agree that NT will start a repurchase cycle but he says that more and more users will head towards it. Its introduction to notebooks is on Toshiba's product calendar but the company is waiting for a version of NT which will be industry standard.
Also waiting is Acer. Product manager Nick Lazaridis told ARN that Windows NT would be available on Acer notebooks in the second half of 1997 when Microsoft releases the next version. He says that the current version has poor support for battery power management and PC Cards. As a result, battery life is reduced and expansion is difficult. Lazaridis anticipates that Windows NT will be available on Acer notebooks around September/October, 1997.
Two companies already offering Windows NT on notebooks are IBM on its ThinkPad 760 EL and Digital which launched NT in October '96 on its Ultra machine and in February '97 on its value-based machine.
Digital's marketing manager Paul Jones told ARN that the volume of its notebook sales for machines with Windows NT has grown from 5 to 15 per cent with most sales at the high end of the market.
While the weight of the battery in notebooks is important, favouring the lighter lithium ion battery, battery life is far more important for most users choosing between brands.
Toshiba, IBM, Digital, Apple and Acer all use lithium ion batteries in most or all of their notebooks. Digital and Apple both use SMART technology. SMART looks at the battery and knows how much power is left before a recharge is necessary. While the Apple PowerBook experienced several "teething problems" two years ago with the lithium ion battery, the company claims that these problems have now been overcome.
Manufacturers are looking forward to the next generation of lithium battery, the lithium polymer. Gunnell of IBM told ARN that an advantage of the new battery is that it can be shaped so that it forms part of the base or even the screen. In other words, the manufacturers will have much more flexibility in product design.
Acer employs a number of factors to extend battery life. In addition to using a lithium ion battery, Lazaridis told ARN that the components used on the motherboard, the processor and the hard disk all need to be low power consuming. Acer was the only manufacturer that ARN spoke to which claimed to employ heuristic technology to even further extend battery life. Notebooks using this technology are supposed to "learn" a user's power usage patterns and manage the power accordingly.
Rex Farrance, in a product review for PC World (US), labelled it "the battery that wouldn't die". After testing the Acer battery he concluded that "the end result was a battery life far longer than anything else we've ever seen". The Acer notebook which uses this technology is the AcerNote Nuovo.
Toshiba is working on this "intelligent battery" at "lab level" and Lakin believes that Toshiba will be including this battery in its notebooks from mid to late 1998.
Doin' it on the desk
Each manufacturer we spoke to agreed that notebooks are becoming very popular on the desktop.
Lazaridis told ARN that this is one of the reasons why the Nuovo was built. It is a faster machine equipped with MMX. However, with the cost still about 30 per cent more than a desktop, he believes that it will be about three years before notebooks reach price parity with desktop machines.
At Apple, Milton Bowry, product manager for Powerbooks, told ARN that the company is investigating a higher performance product as a desktop alternative. With the PowerBook, Bowry claims that there is a positive trend towards its use as a desktop replacement.
Jones of digital, which only sells to the business market, says that 85Ð90 per cent of its notebooks go in as desktop replacements.
He believes that this is because of their powerful hard drive capacity and because the port replications are much better. Lakin of Toshiba attributes the trends towards notebooks being used on the desktop to three factors.
First, he says, "the technology lag no longer applies and, in some cases, new technology comes first to notebooks".
Second, "the power of notebooks has continued to increase, as has the size of the screen and the hard disk".
Third, there is no longer as big a price gap.
Gunnell of IBM suggests also that in office sharing and desk sharing environments (hot-desking), particularly with mobile sales people, the notebook is a sensible solution.
Training and support
Service, support and brand recognition are three of the main issues facing notebook resellers. To this end, each manufacturer that ARN spoke to referred to their technical support and training programs for resellers. Apple referred to training "modules" in the technology of the notebook.
At IBM, Gunnell has a direct relationship with resellers, and regular training is offered in both product and sales on a quarterly basis. New product information is also available on request. A database available to resellers provides all deliverables, promotions and price reduction details. Advertising can be arranged for individual cases or jointly with the channel. According to Gunnell, this leads to channel partners working together with other channel partners.
Acer provides its resellers with a "Product Roadmap" which shows the direction of the product line over the next six months. This includes availability, estimated date of introduction and estimated date of phase-out of old products. The idea behind this is to assist resellers to make more accurate stock orders. Acer also conducts reseller training every few months. The training includes a competitive analysis, as according to Lazaridis most Acer resellers deal with about three manufacturers.
Digital offers resellers a pre-sales technology support line and a PC action line. The action line offers resellers a direct line to 10 account managers for prices and new product information.
Digital also offers technical training and sales training nationally and access to its web site, Info Net. Jones commented that, as most products have a four to six month lifespan, there is a critical need for up-to-date information.
At Toshiba, corporate sales people are employed to develop business for the reseller channel. As a further assistance, Toshiba participates in marketing activities with the reseller, for example "Profit Pack". In this program Toshiba puts together fully funded ad campaigns specifically designed for individual resellers.
A second form of assistance is the Toshiba Recognition Program which resellers can qualify for on the basis of their sales success. Resellers are "taken away to an attractive location" where they are able to combine personal development and product training with relaxation.
Toshiba also provides access to demo products for resellers and large corporate customers, plus technical support. A team of technicians is employed specifically to support the channel. Access to them is by phone and/or computer and Toshiba will also send technicians on-site to train resellers.
Supporting the end user
ARN enquired about the level of support given by manufacturers to the end user and to what extent this was done directly and/or through the reseller.
At Toshiba, all support is through the channel. In large corporations however, Toshiba provides on-site training at no cost to the reseller. Lakin argues that this is an easier method because of the bulk of business. Sometimes the reseller will attend the training but usually this is done independently by Toshiba.
At Digital, end-user support is provided by the manufacturer. Digital provides a warranty on its machines and backs this up with a Service Response Centre. All notebooks are returned to base for repair and forty people are employed to dispatch service around the country. Digital promises a two-day turnaround.
The warranty covers all consumables plus a 90- day telephone warranty for installed software. Incidents not covered include theft and misuse (for example, driving over the machine).
Acer support for the end user is either through the reseller that organises back-to-base repairs, or direct to Acer. End users in Sydney can walk in to Acer's head office and there is one walk-in service centre in each state. Currently Acer promises a 78-hour turnaround with the aim of 48-hour turnaround very soon.
In addition, Acer offers a free international travel warranty where travellers are offered a guaranteed 48-hour turnaround time or replacement in 38 countries in Europe, Asia, South America and the United States.
IBM offers a service hotline for the end user. The reseller has his/her own PIN for the hotline to assist with service enquiries. Apple directs end-user support through the reseller but offers a 30-day support line for end users.
All manufacturers mentioned told ARN that they had no supply problems at present. At Apple, Bowry says that in spite of PowerBook 1400 orders being 200 per cent of forecast, a new shipment has just arrived and there is plenty of stock.
Acer acknowledges that, while at the beginning of the year there were some problems, March looks to be a "good month" with demand meeting supply. Units supplied in March have doubled February shipments.
Jones of Digital told ARN that the company "bumped up" its forecast last August so that stock would be available. The company promises a four- day turnaround on desktop machines, even if they have to be custom-built. Standard desktop machines are available the next day.
Lakin says that Toshiba has not had any supply problems and none are anticipated. In fact he claims the MMX processor will soon be spread more through the Toshiba range of notebooks and as soon as this is announced Toshiba will be ready to ship. Lakin says that Toshiba is in a position to do this because it manufactures a lot of its own technology or it engages in a joint venture with another company. Either way Lakin says, Toshiba is in control of the production process.
Toshiba - Bruce Lakin, general manager.
Digital PC Business Unit Australia -
Paul Jones, marketing manager.
Acer - Nick Lazaridis, product manager.
IBM - Tim Gunnell, product manager for
ThinkPads, Australia and New Zealand.
Apple Australia - Milton Bowry, product
manager for Powerbooks.