THREE major product announcements in as many weeks have heralded the dawn of a new era in mobile computing. Firstly, Toshiba launched its Satellite 5110, with a remote control unit for its DVD player. Then Hewlett-Packard announced is first HP-branded iPAQ Pocket PC which can be used as an all-purpose household infrared remote control unit for everything from the TV to the air-conditioning unit. Finally, British game publisher Eidos announced that the world's most popular cyber siren, Lara Croft, would appear in a Pocket PC version of her best-selling Tomb Raider series.
The announcements marked a clear and targeted move into the consumer market for mobile computing, propelled by new-found entertainment capabilities and applications. Those capabilities are a result of major improvements in mobile processor technology and, when combined with a selection of wireless technologies, make mobile computing compelling for a wider market more than ever before.
Intel's Pentium 4 Processor-M, launched earlier this year, has seen laptop processor speeds hit 2GHz, with the promise of even better to come in 2003 with the launch of the Banian processor family - the first mobile processors built from the ground up, rather than being adapted from desktop processors.
But what the P4PM has done for laptops is almost insignificant compared to what the company's XScale technology has done for the Pocket PC. Processor speeds have literally doubled overnight (from 200MHz to 400MHz), with the prospect of rising to 700MHz next year. XScale can be used in a wide range of devices, including mobile phones, and earlier this year Intel announced it would work with Microsoft as part of a move into the mobile telephony arena.
The new processors - combined with the rapid uptake of Wireless LAN (802.11), the long-awaited availability of Bluetooth and the convergence of mobile voice and data technology with traditional PDAs like the Handspring Vizor - have changed the mobile computing landscape dramatically over the past 12 months.
Add to that the closing of the price gap between desktop and laptop and the added versatility of being mobile and it is easy to understand why both consumers and businesses are looking at replacing desktops with laptops and, in some quarters, even replacing laptops with handhelds.
People are now finding a lot more to do with their laptops and handhelds. Where previously mobile computing was seen primarily as being business oriented, entertainment is now becoming an important component of the market - particularly in the area of handhelds.
UK analyst group Informa Media predicts that the global mobile entertainment (games) market will surge from $US762 million in 2001 to over $US11 billion by 2006, and those figures do not include existing dedicated handheld games consoles such as Nintendo's Game Boy - they relate only to mobile phones, PDAs and handheld PCs.
But games are not the only form of multimedia application A variety of handheld devices now include digital cameras, or digital camera add-ons, and/or the capability to edit, manipulate, receive and send digital pictures. The more processing power and memory you have, the more you can do, and in the case of laptops, that now includes playing DVD movies.
According to technology analyst Bruce McCabe, there are immense possibilities for entertainment on handhelds."There is a complete new entertainment market. If you look at the demographics for mobile phone usage and where the revenues are coming from, SMS being a good example, it is dominated by teenagers, so add entertainment and there are immense possibilities," he says.
"However, there is a danger, because of the complexity of the device. One of the secrets of the success of products such as the Palm and other PDAs has been the simplicity of the devices. Consumers become wary when a device comes along that promises to do too many things. If something purports to be a personal organiser, a mobile phone and a sophisticated games device, it may be pushing the boundaries too far. It is probably two of the three rather than three of the three," McCabe adds.
While McCabe remains sceptical, the likes of Nokia, Handspring and Sony Ericsson are more confident. Nokia released its 9210 Communicator at the beginning of the year, promoting it as a phone, PDA and games platform; Handspring released its Treo 270 as a PDA/phone with game capabilities; and Sony Ericsson will soon release its P800 with the same sort of functionality. One thing all three have in common is high-resolution colour screens, without which the gaming experience would not be as viable.
Improved screen technology has also been a big driver for multimedia laptops, which are now being offered with DVD players and 3D graphics cards that are good enough to cope with the most graphic-intensive computer games.
But McCabe warns that the idea of replacing a desktop with a laptop is not as perfect a scenario as it may sound. Laptops do not last as long as desktops and the very portability that people buy them for is the thing that shortens their life because of the high rate of component failure, he says.
Hewlett-Packard's new personal services group manager Tony Ignatavicius believes mobile computing's move into the consumer market opens a lot of opportunities for the channel. The laptop and Pocket PC are no longer just something used for business - they are things that can also be used at home, and that is a trend you will see continuing. He said a number of features were being added to mobile devices to make them more appealing to consumers.
For example, in addition to its remote control capability, the new iPAQ also has a joy pad, similar to that on a video games console, which can be used for playing games.
Toshiba, which recently entered the handheld market in Australia, has also aggressively pushed the desktop replacement idea with its TE and Satellite series. The recently released Satellite 5110, in particular, is being billed as being perfect for gamers and comes with a remote control unit for both music and DVD playback.
Melissa McVickner, Intel's Desktop Platform program manager, Asia-Pacific, says that while mobile PCs will not replace the desktop, "in more and more cases in both the business and consumers sectors, the notebook is becoming the primary PC".
However, while Intel has a vested interest in seeing both the laptop and handheld markets thrive, it is also working towards a new class of product to be launched later this year. McVickner says Intel has been working closely with Microsoft to develop the Tablet PC, a hybrid type of notebook that comes with text recognition.
Toshiba's product marketing manager and local head of new technology, Laurie White, says the channel should prepare for the launch of a totally new mobility product later in the year. Toshiba, like Hewlett-Packard and several other manufacturers, will launch its first Tablet PCs before Christmas. Initially they will be aimed at the corporate market, but as volumes increase and prices fall they are expected to infiltrate the education market.
White says they will not rely on XScale processors, but will be more like notebooks. "The first of them will be out in November - too early for the new Banian processors, so they will use Pentium 3 ultra-low voltage processors. The P4 is just too hot so the P3 will be used until Banian is available in the first or second quarter of 2003."
According to White, the tablets will have a hard drive, integrated keyboard and 12-inch display. "It will be very similar in design to Sony's Clié. It will have an extremely accurate magnetic pen that will be able to recognise your handwriting, so those things make it into a notebook without any trade-off. Corporates will be able to use it as a notebook, but also convert it to something that is a bit more productive while they are on the road."
HP's Ignatavicius says HP and Compaq, which have now completed their merger, have been working on Tablet PCs for some time and plan to release the first HP model around the same time as Toshiba.
He says initially it will be aimed at particular verticals, including the health market, which is expected to be an early adopter of tablets.
While the first models are likely to have a price point $1,500 to $3,000 above a standard laptop, both White and Ignatavicius expect prices to begin to fall rapidly in 12 to 18 months.