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Mobile Mates

For many people, it's an extension of the body; an extra limb that travels with the person, offering countless enhanced business functionality and multimedia capabilities. Relying on the technology for work and entertainment, the notebook is fast becoming a must-have for work and play. With notebooks the fastest growing segment of the PC market, and local action cranking up a notch, vendors are catering to the space with the rollout of massive multimedia powerhouses to low-cost portable systems.

IDC findings show the portable PC market is seeing massive growth, with sales up 14 per cent sequentially and 31 per cent compared to the same period in 2004. On the commercial front, Q1 2005 numbers show an increase of more than 19 per cent, largely thanks to the education market, according to IDC's PC analyst, Mike Sager.

The Top five market leaders were IBM, Dell, Acer, Toshiba and HP.

Citing recent Q1 numbers, Gartner analyst, Andy Woo said the SME market grew 22.6 per cent, the corporate space expanded 19.3 per cent, while the home market bulged by 50 per cent.

On the home and retail front, the appearance of sub-$1000 notebooks has had a major impact, convincing many users to ditch the desktop, he said.

So what are users after? From a fascination with widescreen to extensive connectivity and improved performance, the latest gaggle of gear comes equipped with beefier data security features and multimedia capabilities. Other top features include two-spindle notebooks as well as rewritable DVD capabilities.

In a bid to answer the call, an army of vendors are stepping up to the plate.

"There's an unprecedented growth of new vendors in the local notebook market," IDC's Sager said. "Asus, BenQ, LG Electronics, Medion and Samsung have all invested in local operations and have dramatically increased the competition for incumbent vendors."

The tough part was standing out from the roaring crowd, Acer's notebook product manager, Antonio Leone, said. "Products are so commoditised," he said. "It's like buying a loaf of bread, if you can't find what you're looking for, you can easily switch to another brand, so the trick is to keep customers interested."

STANDING OUT

Gartner's Woo said notebook vendors could differentiate from the pack by pushing brand awareness and offering competitive pricing strategies. Local whitebook players were facing a tough road given the aggressive pricing strategies of their multinational cousins.

While whitebook players may be cringing, the crowded market spells good news for consumers, loading them up with heaps of choice. From fingerprint recognition to TV tuner cards, notable notebook features are running the gamut.

Optima notebook product manager, Henry Lee, said customers were demanding better performance from their notebooks - one of the key factors driving current product developments.

"Responding to demand, vendors are increasingly looking at dual- and multi-core processor technology, and at ways in which they can effectively support 64-bit applications," Lee said.

Lenovo offerings manager, David Nicol, said chatting about performance wasn't trendy these days.

"Certainly, we are seeing strong demand for Centrino compared to Celeron, but customers are asking less for the next step in processors," Nicol said. Instead, the notebook conversation is more about how big is the hard drive and multi-burner functionality.

"This is a reflection of the importance of storage," Nicol said. "And now that multi-burners and large hard drives are standard, there's less need to augment externally."

How to protect critical data also featured prominently in any notebook conversation, Nicol said.

To help ease some of the security angst, the company offered, among other things, biometric fingerprint readers, enhanced encryption functionality, an Embedded Security Subsystem, which offers a security chip and client security software, along with Computrace technology, a tracking and recovery tool stored in the BIOS.

The Computrace third-party agent sat on the machine, Nicol said, and if the notebook was stolen and the hard drive deleted, it could rebuild itself and be tracked over the Web or the network.

Notebook security continued to be an important issue from both a consumer and commercial perspective, with options such as HDD encryption and integrated fingerprint readers gaining in popularity, Optima's Lee said. "Notebooks may also include motion detection and alert features that, when enabled, will sound an alarm if the notebook is moved from a stationary position," he said.

HOT TICKET

HP market development manager for transactional notebooks, Janet Bradburn, said security features in both the SMB and enterprise notebooks were in hot demand.

"The biggest things are security and value for money," he said. "There is an understanding that as devices get more mobile, we need better data security."

Bradburn said HP security features included: the TPM security module, a chip that sat on the motherboard and protected passwords or critical data; Credential Manager for HP ProtectTools, which provided users with single sign-on capability and storage of a host of different passwords used to access websites, network resources and secure applications; Smart Card pre-boot authentication, and DriveLock hard drive protection.

"The SMB space, as a concept, is looking for security, but is not yet aware of how to do it," Bradburn said.

In addition to educating consumers about the enhanced security features, she said partners could focus on up-selling opportunities and peddling notebook peripherals, along with the base level product.

"A TFT monitor, a docking station, keyboard, mouse, additional power supply and carrying case are possible added sales," she said.

Given the increased competition on price, Bradburn said resellers should offer consumers the complete experience. "Instead of pitching the best bang for buck, focus on features, [including hard drive protection and data protection], pitch the warranties and sell the peripherals," she said.

"Give the consumer one head to chop: offer them the total experience," Bradburn said. "Sell the notebook, the peripherals, the desktop, the printer and whatever else the customer needs."

General manager of Toshiba's information systems division, Mark Whittard, said the corporate space had significantly grown in part due to the popularity of the EasyGuard security feature.

"The technology prevents buffer overflow virus attacks by enabling the notebook's processor to distinguish between bits of code that should be executed and ones that cannot be as they pose a threat to the system," Whittard said.

Agreeing that security and storage were top notebook markers, AMD marketing manager, Caroline Francis, said power and performance continuedto feature high on user wish lists.

POWER CHARGE

Performance is still a top priority, particularly for the gaming, graphics arts professional and digital media crowd. It is all about what the power can do.

"The competition to produce high performance mobile processors is heating up, as the need for higher performance notebooks escalates, and the demand for workforce mobility becomes more widespread," Francis said.

AMD's latest mobile offering, the Turion 64, is a 64-bit enabled mobile processor, which Francis said offered less heat generation, longer battery life, enhanced virus protection and greater performance.

"Having top performance allows for features such as fingerprint and face recognition," Francis said.

Beyond power, ease of use continued to be another major consideration influencing notebook technology, Optima's Lee said.

Handwriting recognition usually found in tablets will increasingly appear in notebooks, allowing users to input information via a pen-based medium.

"To this effect, voice recognition that converts voice commands into text may also become a common feature in notebooks." Lee said. Acer's Leone said longer battery life, along with extensive connectivity and widescreen were in demand.

Widescreen was in fashion, IDC's Sager said. Twenty-five per cent of portable PCs sold in the first quarter of 2005 were widescreen, an increase of 6.4 per cent in market share sequentially, and 14.1 per cent from the same period in 2004, Sager said. "This is an important consideration as widescreen portables are permeating beyond their consumer base into the larger commercial market," Sager said.

"Widescreen, widescreen, widescreen, is the top thing looked at in notebooks," Sony Australia, group business manager, Vaio notebooks, Gordon Kerr said. "The processor is less of an issue because all processors are so high, offering great performance."

Kerr said consumers also wanted digital video inputs and multiple USB connections. "If they can't fit on a machine, make sure there's a docking station," he said. "Wireless is a given, and so is DVD burning. The quality of the screen is important and keyboards that you can type at for long periods."

On the wireless front, enhanced connectivity - [being souped up with wireless protocols including 802.11 a/b and g - was an expected standard these days, Lenovo's Nicol said.

"We sell very few notebooks in our range without wireless technology. Besides one model in our R series everything else is wireless," Nicol said. "Customers are expecting it as a standard. They now have an expectation for it either at work or at home."

With the increase in broadband and wireless technology for homes, partners can offer bundled notebook packages or starter kits. IDC figures show more than 75 per cent of notebooks in Q4 2004 were sold with embedded WLAN.

The sheer number of wireless enabled notebooks was serving as a push factor for installing WLANs in Australia, IDC's Sager said.

MARKET MEANDERING

Sony's Gordon Kerr said while the consumer market was where it's at the company was looking to make more of a mark in the business arena. "We are looking at the channels into the B2B space," he said.

Kerr hinted at some high-end product being launched later this year.

In the retail space, the low end market is a top performer, while the top end of town, who are quick to turn over laptops, are looking at it from a lifestyle, digital home perspective.

"There's two ends of the spectrum," Kerr said. "At the low end, people who have typically owned a desktop are now going for the more affordable laptop, whereas at the high end, purchases are largely being driven by the CE and IT convergence, where people want style and design."

Meanwhile, Lenovo was hinting at jumping into the consumer space. "We play today in the commercial space, but we may consider a move into the consumer space down the line," Lenovo channels and business partners, Phil Cameron, said.

Overseas, there was talk of the company shaking up the ultacompetitive US consumer PC space. Lenovo is already a major player in the Chinese consumer market, according to analysts.

Q1 TOP OF THE PODIUM

IBM was the standout performer in the commercial portable PC market by a country mile, IDC market analyst, PC hardware, Mike Sager, said. "It had a very significant win in the education sector combined with impetus from the Lenovo move which combined to cause massive growth for IBM," Sager said. Dell grabbed second with a rising Acer in third position. Rounding out the top five were Toshiba and HP, which were both trying to hold ground in the increasingly competitive portable market, Sager said.


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