The desktop alternative

The desktop alternative

In the past, when it came to choosing between desktop or laptop, consumers were essentially choosing between processing power and portability.

Today, notebooks are marketed as a desktop alternative, a factor that has allowed sales to remain buoyant through the flat economic period.

Problems with overheating have largely been solved, allowing for Pentium III 1GHz mobile processors, 128MB of RAM and 30GB hard drives.

Manufacturers have finally wrested control over power consumption, squashing it to 1.5 volts at full operating capacity and a mere 0.85 volts in Battery Optimised mode. For users this means an average battery life of three to four hours at an average unit weight of three to four kilos.

"Both the technology and the price gap between desktops and laptops is improving," says Antonio Leone, product manager for notebook PCs at Acer Computer Australia.

However, compared to the technologies that surround them, notebooks have arrived at a rather incongruous stage. While they are all primed for the totally mobile world, with wireless aerials, built-in Bluetooth cards and GPRS modems not too far off, the wireless LAN connections are still struggling with bandwidth issues and GPRS, and Bluetooth handsets are still in the minority compared to their GSM counterparts.

The short and good of it is that while the price of portability is comparable to a desktop solution, the price of a totally mobile solution blows out enormously in the current climate.

"Wireless LAN is not firing," says Geoff Croshaw, chief executive of IT service provider Senteq. "The capacity is simply not strong enough. The max you can get out of a single wireless point is 11 megs; it dilutes by the user, so at three or four users you start to get drop-outs. The only way to get true mobile solutions is via pipes and connections that are able to handle it, or apps like Citrix that give you desktop capability wherever you are."

Ken Hogg, general manager of Apple retailer Mac1, agrees that wireless has a way to go, particularly for heavy file transfers undertaken by the design community.

"The bandwidth just simply isn't big enough - a fibre network or gigabyte typography is far more suitable," says Hogg.

What's more, the geographical limitations of wireless are proving a significant retardant to uptake. You can use it within the confines of the office, in Qantas lounges and select hotels, but that's hardly comprehensive coverage.

"There are some vendor-driven issues that need to be clarified before we in the channel can move forward," says Croshaw. "The hardware and software guys need to get their heads together and build something that works, much like Microsoft, IBM and Intel did back in the days of PI and Win 95."

On the other hand, Chee-Mei Gan, manager for mobile products at Compaq Australia, says wireless capacity, and whether it's here or not, depends entirely on what the user wants to do.

She says the temptation of organisations to wait and watch while others brave the new world of wireless is dangerous and should be avoided.

"If you wait for the technology to stabilise, your competitor is going to be reaping the benefits and you'll be behind the eight ball," Gan says.

The problem here of course is that in today's tough economic climate consumers are exhibiting more caution than ever when purchasing, choosing to upgrade on a need basis only. According to PC resellers, this pinch is reflected by the slowing of the sales cycle. Many organisations are still running on Windows 98, even 95, possibly with a little 2000 mixed in, but with no intention of moving to the new, fabulous features of XP.

Nevertheless, Mark Whittard, national marketing manager for Toshiba Australia/NZ, says there are still compelling reasons to buy, they're just not necessarily the OS or the hardware spec.

"The clock speed of the CPU is the last thing that you talk to customers about," says Whittard. "The platform is becoming a commodity but the rest of the stuff, the security and wireless aspects, certainly isn't."

Christanto Suryadarma, group manager of Intel Australia's Internet solution group, agrees, adding that in the absence of a single killer app there is a killer user model just waiting to be leveraged.

It will be the expandable aspects of the technology, its ability to drive peripheral appliances, that will entice users to buy and upgrade, says Suryadarma - things like MP3 players, DVD/CD rewritable drives and videoconferencing. But it will require resellers to have a solid understanding of the technology.

Gan says this concept also carries an important lesson for the longevity of the channel in an environment where they can't differentiate purely on spec.

"Customers are buying through resellers less for their assistance in selecting the hardware and more for life-cycle management, financing, help desk support and someone who can look after their collective needs," she says.

According to Acer's Leone, the increase in people buying notebooks off spec has less to do with vendors selling direct or indirect than the commoditisation of the product itself.

He says that while the channel is concerned by price wars eroding their hardware margins, they should recognise that the customised solutions are becoming more sophisticated.

Specialist bag manufacturer Targus is one channel partner making the most of client-specific solutions. Commissioned by Toshiba, among others, it constructs fully enclosed clam casing for Telstra maintenance crew laptops to protect the units from dirt, moisture and physical impact.

"There are a range of things that customers are looking for and only one of them is the hardware," says David Nicol, mobile computing brand manager for IBM Australia.

Meanwhile, Leone maintains hope in the ability of Windows' new XP OS to stimulate the market.

"There's a lot of buzz around XP," he says. Like Nicol, he is confident that a significant portion of the hype will convert to sales, despite end users' concerns about Microsoft's history of releasing new operating systems to fix glitches in previous versions, often with limited success.

"[XP] is particularly advantageous to a mobile environment," says Nicol. "[Notebooks are] specifically designed with the functionality of XP in mind."

Of particular interest are the additional security features, like file encryption in the Pro series, which will complement the fingerprint ID already existent in Acer's TravelPro and IBM's embedded security sub-system.

"The burning issues are wireless, security and migration," says Nicol. "And, [IBM] will be looking to lean on partners to assist customers with these issues."

So, while the disparities between hardware, software and carrier networks may make the mobile road more difficult to negotiate, the fact remains that expanding businesses are seriously considering the advantages of wireless LAN environments and notebooks, whether they fly with them in the end or not. And, at the end of the day, the complexity itself forms part of the value-add.

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