With notebook growth slowing and margins shrinking into oblivion, several vendors have turned their attention towards specialist machines. This sharpened focus offers a chance for resellers to break into new vertical segments.
Last month, Samsung announced it would withdraw all notebook models from the Australian market and concentrate on developing demand for ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs). Sales director of IT and CE, Norman Krieke, said the niche machines could fi nd a home in education, mobile sales forces and medical segments.
While still active in general notebook categories, Toshiba also started the year by announcing a renewed commitment to the burgeoning tablet PC space with the launch of the Portege R400 notebook-to-tablet convertible PC.
Panasonic made the decision early to stay clear of the traditional notebook dogfi ght. The local team has spent several years solely focusing on its ruggedised notebook line, Toughbook. This month, it introduced the new convertible CF-19 Tablet PC, CF-30 touchscreen notebook and CF-08 wireless thin-client display. Toughbook division group manager, John Wood, estimated Australian ruggedised sales at up to $80 million this year. He claimed the machines were no longer a niche for extreme outdoor users like defence and mining.
"We're up to the fifth generation of these notebooks," Wood said. "The first generation was used by extreme users with a very high need to ensure against failure, but the next level is going to be the mobile professional." Interest was growing in utility markets, engineering, surveying, local councils and organisations with mobile professionals.
Panasonic reseller, TLC Data Systems, has seen interest in ruggedised machines continue to rise. Its director, Rob Boogers, said it had recently deployed Toughbooks to service agents for electronic appliance company, Kleenmaid. These were built into vans and attached to printing facilities.
"Kleenmaid had been looking at commercial notebooks, but as soon as they saw the Toughbooks they wanted them," he said. "Their reasoning was environmental conditions. Agents working by washing machines or fridges could come into contact with liquids and chemicals."
Wood said there were two drivers behind take-up. One was increased business mobility thanks to the broader availability of wireless broadband through embedded Wi-Fi, wireless LAN and 3G.
The other driver was increasing concerns on security and failure rates beyond the total cost of notebook ownership.
"Customers are looking beyond the initial cost of the product as they realise there are more things to consider," Wood said. "Failure rates are becoming quite an issue."
Boogers said the higher cost of ruggedised machines was still an initial customer concern, but argued ROI was often lower than that of commercial notebooks. He cited one Toughbook customer, Telstra, which had analysed the cost. According to its results, annual warranty savings alone across its 5000 fi eld units were $500,000. IDC PC analyst, Liam Gunson, said a few vendors, such as Panasonic, had excelled in selling niche notebooks. Several others, including Dell, had also stepped into the semi-ruggedised market. While sales were not going through the roof, interest in alternative notebook form factors was rising. "The way prices have come down and notebooks have become commoditised, it's hard to maintain significant profitability and margin," he said. "In a niche space, you are able to pull in healthy margins. It allows these vendors to play there with smaller numbers but still achieve significant profitability."