Would you like a laptop with that?

Would you like a laptop with that?

The fact there are now more portable PCs being sold than desktops was always going to happen, so I wasn't surprised to hear from IDC last week that portable units represented 50.3 per cent of total PCs shipped during the first quarter of the year.

But IDC says the emergence of a new category of mobile machine is tipping the scales even more. These game-changers come in the form of the mini-laptop, or mobile Internet device (MID), as coined by Intel. The term is being used by industry pundits to described mobile PC-based devices as well as smartphones with full Internet capabilities.

Asus launched its low-cost Eee PC into the local market a little over six months ago and, according to IDC, is being purchased as a second portable machine by thousands of Australian consumers. Its release has sparked an influx of rival units - at the recent Computex Trade Show in Taiwan several vendors, including Acer, showcased machines based on Intel's new Atom processor, designed specifically for MIDs. Last week, Toshiba also announced an ultraportable which it claims has a smaller footprint than the Eee PC.

At the same time, the release of the Apple "Jesus" iPhone 3G with Web and email capabilities in Australia next month is also expected to create a new base of users accessing the Internet while on the move.

This makes me wonder whether we'll also start to see some of these mini-laptops, such as the Eee PC, bundled with consumer- oriented wireless broadband deals.

With basic mobile telephony, consumers are driven by access and connectivity, not just the handset. While most of us do choose our phone handset based on design, feature-set and accessories, the reality is that we now expect to get the handset either free or bundled into our 18- or 24-month contract. I'm sure there are plenty of people who will go out and sign up to an Optus or Vodafone 3G plan because they want to get their hands on the iPhone, but the point is that they will be getting access and the device together.

Could this kick-off a new trend with other portable PC devices? Will the laptop go the way of the mobile phone and become a stock-standard part of any 24-month wireless broadband plan?

We've already seen the signs. A few weeks back, Telstra announced it will offer customers a free laptop with wireless broadband plans. I understand an IT hardware distributor has also signed up with the telco giant to provide wireless broadband plans to its reseller base and could launch a similar zero-cost laptop offer.

Telstra's initiative sees customers getting a rebate for the value of a notebook they buy when they sign up to a wireless broadband plan. Telstra will test and pre-approve a range of entry-level through to higher spec laptops. What types of laptops customers will be able to access for free will depend on the type of plan they sign up for. Of course, the outrageous prices being charged by the telcos for wireless broadband access could hinder widespread 3G adoption and disgruntle many consumers, but that's another matter entirely.

If this is the way mini-PCs and notebooks are going to go in the future, then resellers are going to have to take a good hard look at their sales model. Apple resellers are already having to do this to get their hands on the iPhone - because the device can only be acquired via a telco plan, Apple resellers have to sign up as either Optus or Vodafone dealers.

Selling Internet plans is not something the IT channel has traditionally had to dabble in, but I see this inevitably becoming an everyday part of their business.

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