Think of Panasonic and it conjures images of flat screen TVs, digital cameras and washing machines.
However, where the company seems to be crossing over into ICT is with its range of notebook PCs.
In Australia, locals may be familiar with Panasonic’s offerings with the rugged Toughbooks, which are distinguishable through a unique exteriors design that combines a light gray colour with an industrial look.
Panasonic’s AVC Networks Company spokesperson in Japan was able to provide an insight into the Toughbook’s design philosophy during ARN’s visit to the Panasonic Centre in Odaiba, Tokyo.
“We pursue ‘beautility’ with our [Toughbook] series, and based on that, there is a meaning to each aspect of the design,” the spokesperson said.
To illustrate, the spokesperson pointed out how the notebook’s unique “bonnet” cover protects the LCD screen from pressure while at the same time keeping it lightweight.
“It is designed to embody the ‘ruggedness’ and ‘lightweight’ aspects typically required from a business-rugged mobile device,” the spokesperson added.
Panasonic Australia business systems group director, Mark Deere-Jones, expands on the basic design philosophy of the Toughbook by stating that the vendor “designs products based on seven technologies,” which are ruggedness, long battery life, lightweight, good screen visibility, strong security, good thermal management, and wireless capability.
“These key technologies define to a certain extent how we design our products,” he said.
“Even the gray colour helps with thermal management, as dark colours increase the potential for heat.”
Life in the Business Bag
While Panasonic’s notebooks are marketed under the Toughbook moniker in overseas markets such as Australia, in the vendor’s home turf of Japan the devices are branded “Let’s Note.”
As for how this naming came about, the Panasonic spokesperson explains that it is actually the first two words in the (admittedly awkwardly worded) sentence, “Let's note in a business bag for all business people around the world,” which also forms the concept behind the notebook.
Despite consisting of the same external design and interior hardware, the notebooks have been branded under the Toughbook name for markets such as Australia, a move Deere-Jones attributes to market difference, particularly when it comes to the vendor’s retail strategy in Japan.
“Because of the big retail presence in Japan, they wanted to differentiate the consumer product from the business product, and they created this sub-brand called Let’s Note,” he explained.
“They also sell it online, so you can customise the product before you buy it as well.”
A Tough Book
In Japan, Panasonic has typically marketed the Let’s Note range as regular notebooks that have a sturdier than usual design to protect the devices from coffee spillage and other minor accidents.
On the other hand, in overseas markets such as Australia, Panasonic’s Toughbook range mainly consist of rugged notebooks designed for tough jobs, though it has recently started to offer more consumer style offerings in the line-up.
When it comes to the semi-rugged space, Deere-Jones admits that Panasonic Australia is looking at “doing exactly what they did in Japan.”
“This means position ourselves as not purely as a rugged notebook company, but for a much wider market that we haven’t really attacked in the past,” he said.
“That’s part of our strategic plan over the next three years.”
Currently, the selection of business rugged Toughbooks in Australia is limited to three models, while in Japan the Let’s Note range is populated by twice as many options over several categories.
“We were initially focused on the rugged, but our plan is to grow the semi-rugged market,” Deere-Jones said.
“We’ll see in the future a growing number of models in the Toughbook range available in Australia.”
Panasonic Australia’s notebook line-up currently spans the fully rugged and semi-rugged categories.
Deere-Jones says that the fully-rugged is the one that people who use mobile device in fairly difficult conditions all of the time, and customer feedback has so far been positive.
“We continue upgrading it according to their needs, for that really rugged environment,” he said.
“The true testament of that is the retention of customers, and our retention rate is effectively 100 per cent.”
As such, Deere-Jones feels that there is “certain level of satisfaction” amongst Toughbook customers.
“So do we not only deliver what we promise, but we also adjust things according to their needs,” he said.
“A very simple example of that is that in bright sunlight, one of the feedback of the earlier rugged product was that they needed an even brighter screen.”
To make the Tougbook even easier to use in direct sunglight, Deere-Jones says that Panasonic developed a transflective screen.
Although Deere-Jones admits that Panasonic Australia has only started focusing on the semi-rugged space just over 18 months ago, he says that the response to the products has been “beyond [Panasonic Australia’s] expectations.”
“It’s a fairly competitive market, and a lot of people claim to have semi-rugged offerings but actually don’t,” he said.
“So we have been expanding our range beyond just blue collar workers to include white collar workers as well.”
Deere-Jones highlights how the semi-rugged Toughbook has been making inroads into areas such as pharmaceutical.
“We have been working with a company that has been using traditional notebooks in the past, but their failure rate has been quite high so they switched to the Toughbook semi-rugged,” he said.
The result is that the pharmaceutical company has been “delighted” with the reduced failure rate, which maintains their productivity and does not create downtime.
My Own Note
Although the rugged Toughbooks have carved out their own niche in countries such as Australia, the Let's Note series have also gained a sizable following amongst Japanese consumers.
The Panasonic spokesperson feels that the combination of a lightweight design, long battery life, ruggedness and high performance are what have helped meet the requirements of business users.
“Our innovations have been driven by customers' voices, and that’s why we believe that is why Let's Note has been supported by Japanese fans, especially business people,” the spokesperson said.
Attention in the notebook space has been currently focused on Ultrabooks, and while Panasonic’s Let’s Note J10 offering in Japan is small, it can not be called an Ultrabook as it does not conform to the standards set by chip maker, Intel.
As to whether Panasonic is considering potentially releasing an Ultrabook in the future, the spokesperson is only able to confirm that is “being considered,” but that a release date has “not yet been determined.”
In the meantime, Deere-Jones says that Panasonic Australia will be bringing out a rugged tablet.
“There is enormous interest in that, but that is still a few months away,” he said.
When faced with question of whether Panasonic Australia may at one point release a consumer line of notebooks as Panasonic’s headquarters did with the Let’s Note series in Japan, Deere-Jones says there is currently nothing to announce.
“At the moment, we have no real plans to go into retail, and if we did we would still use the Toughbook brand,” he said.
“If we did go into retail, I think we would look at potentially replicating what we’re doing in Japan.”
Read more of our exclusives from Japan:
• Security landscape “bigger and noisier” than ever before, claims Symantec
• K computer brought recognition, but also higher expectations, says Fujitsu
• Customers look to vendor for guidance, says VMware
• Flexibility was key concept behind HUS’ evolution, says Hitachi
• CSR in Tohoku is more than a one-time activity, says Fuji Xerox
• Retail and consumer make Australian market attractive, says Buffalo
• How Intel promoted Ultrabooks in Japan with Urutora
• 'Father of the ThinkPad', Arimasa Naitoh, on the notebook’s past, present and future