On the eve of PC Expo, Intel is pushing notebook makers to expand their mobile offerings during the next year, hoping to give customers more choices than ever for maximising mobile productivity while minimising costs.
In a market that formerly contained as few as two types of notebooks, Intel envisions as many as seven by 2000, including a critical new category labelled "mininotebooks", that will be showcased by vendors at this week's PC Expo in New York.
Intel will also be specialising processors for some of these emerging markets, according to internal Intel documents.
"We design to meet the needs of customers," said Frank Spindler, vice president of marketing for the mobile products group at Intel. "There are some cases where we have designed or will offer products for these different categories."
The moves are intended to serve a larger variety of mobile users with full-fledged notebook PCs during a time when users are increasingly turning to PC alternatives.
But for IT managers, the proliferation of devices comes with some big concerns.
"We build a standard environment, and if there are any deviations, it is a support issue and we have to build that into a separate image," said an IT manager at a Fortune 500 company. "In a big company, you are looking for the economy of scale, and you don't have the opportunity to buy a lot of different models."
Intel's further splintering of mobile PCs also comes at a particularly vulnerable time for the notebook market. LCD prices are increasing, due to a worldwide shortage, and higher costs of DRAM and DVD are all driving up notebook prices.
Also, Intel alerted notebook vendors last week to a two-month delay in the release of the Mobile Pentium III processors with Geyserville technology, originally due out at the end of September. The processor was to be a boon for mobile computing, bringing notebook power to nearly the level of desktop computers. As a result of the delay, the equivalency will have to wait.
"The challenge that we are having is getting it up to the 600MHz frequency," said an Intel representative. "We'll get there, but it will be about two months later than we thought."
But the Pentium III chip will still become available by the end of this year, according to the representative, and will be priced aggressively across a variety of new notebook styles. New processors from Intel were formerly reserved for high-end systems, but Intel says the Pentium III will find its way into a number of price bands and form factors at its launch. This presents IT departments with the familiar dilemma of when to switch to the new technology.
But determining the business case for adopting new PC designs is complex for IT organisations.
"We want to give them one machine that will go from office to home or wherever," said Jennifer Winch, an IT manager at PG&E, in San Francisco. "However, the cost of these systems is twice as high and forces you into a more aggressive replacement cycle. It's not worth hanging onto them after they've gone off warranty because when they do break down, it is cost-prohibitive to repair them."
But analysts say that the significant boost in power that users will gain from the Mobile Pentium III chips -- though delayed -- will eventually create parity between mobile and desktop systems. In turn, corporations will find a compelling reason to make the leap.
"We have never had desktops and mobiles operate the same," said Gerry Purdy, president of Mobile Insights, in California. "That flexibility will further enhance the idea that mobile makes sense for professional employees in an organisation."
Notebook vendors received their first samples of the Mobile Pentium III chips last week, and will not have products to show at PC Expo. Instead, a number of thin-and-light and mininotebooks will be on display, both on the show floor and behind closed doors.
For example, NEC will show off its Versa Light FX, a forthcoming mininotebook in the same vein as IBM's ThinkPad 240 and the Toshiba Protege 3110CT. The Versa Light FX will feature a 12-inch thin-film transistor screen and a Pentium III chip, and will weigh 1.6kg. It will be priced at about $US1799.http://www.intel.com