In the era of what the vendors like to romantically call the road warrior, mobile computing solutions have taken off. A vast array of new products are hitting the market and vendors not traditionally involved in the space are bringing out products, from the mundane notebook to the more trendy handheld device. New operating systems are challenging mobile incumbents and the desktop no longer dominates the enterprise. Rebecca Munro looks at the market trends and some of the latest products.
Psion launches assault on WinCE
Psion development partner and distributor Vodaphone last week announced the Australian availability of the new Psion Series 5mx handheld computer, which Vodaphone believes will consolidate Psion's position as Australia and New Zealand's number one keyboard-based handheld vendor.
"Handheld devices can be divided into two categories: keyboard-based devices such as Psion's, and Windows CE products and Palm Pilot technologies that have no keyboard. Palm Pilots occupy about 55 per cent of the market, Psion has 20 per cent and the remaining 15 per cent is taken up by Windows CE products," estimated Stuart Palmer, manager of Psion's Vodaphone division.
Simbia, a joint venture between Psion, Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola and Panasonic, provides Psion's operating system, EPOC. According to Palmer, Simbia technology offers users a versatility that Windows CE lacks. "People choose not to use CE because it requires a lot of power. With EPOC you can do all your word processing, e-mail, Internet access, PowerPoint presentations and synchronise with your desktop on a device that fits into your pocket, is very light and has a month-long battery life," said Palmer.
However, IDC's PC analyst, Logan Ringland, disagreed with Palmer's assessment of the Windows CE operating platform. "EPOC has been around for a lot longer but Windows CE will overtake it. It will instead be a competition between CE and 3Com's Palm Pilot," said Ringland.
Yet Palmer claims that Psion's 5mx also differentiates itself from the competition through its inclusion of Java. "The Psion Series 5mx is the only palmtop product that supports Java programs and allows them to run on the device, although there are others that allow a user to view Java applets via the Web," he said.
Despite the controversy, Vodaphone is preparing to cash in on a market IDC predicts is growing at 65 per cent per annum, a statistic Vodaphone has been aware of since last June when it began distributing Psion's Series 5 handheld device. "We've sold 5000 units in the last 15 months and expect to double our volume in the next 12 months," said Palmer.
Mobile market on the move
Australia's mobile computer market is becoming increasingly dynamic with record product shipments and the emergence of more varied product offerings.
IDC put the growth for the total mobile market at 15.5 per cent, with market leader Toshiba experiencing 2.8 per cent annual growth. However, IBM and Dell are playing the catch-up game admirably with growth percentages of 34 and 58 per cent respectively.
And even though the exact figures aren't in yet the notebook market is losing ground to handheld PCs. "We won't know till next year for sure but I dare say they [handhelds] are moving up on notebooks in terms of volume because they are cheaper and their functionality is increasing, particularly Windows CE devices," explained Logan Ringland, PC analyst at IDC Australia.
The increasing popularity of white box notebooks has also played a part in the expanded mobile arena with companies such as Highlander selling reasonably fast laptops for under $3000.
However, not all aspects of the mobile market are taking off. Thin clients are struggling to carve out a position in the highly competitive market and, according to Ringland, laptops are still too pricey and not powerful enough to square off against the desktop.
"There doesn't seem to be a replacement of desktops by notebooks because desktop prices are dropping a hell of a lot quicker than notebooks and you can get more power on your desktop. I don't think they will ever be on a parity," said Ringland.
Intel's proposed 600MHz mobile processor will help close the gap in terms of performance but is yet to go into production. The $5000 price difference will also be detrimental to the notebook's campaign.
The predicament of thin clients is based on what Ringland perceives as employees' reluctance to sacrifice the "individuality and freedom" offered on a PC and absent from a thin-client device. Ringland also suspects thin clients create difficulties with bandwidth, because "so many people are trying to access the server".
Compaq tackles thin-client market
Just six weeks after the release of its first handheld device, Compaq last week launched its Aero 8000 thin-client handheld computer, which defines how the PC vendor perceives the enterprise space shaping up.
"The challenge now is how to get the wealth of information from the enterprise down into the hands of the mobile workers," said Terry Scerri, director of product marketing. "In an age where corporate information resides on a corporate network you need a thin-client solution."
And with the proliferation of IT in general Scerri asserts that a thin-client solution saves a business time and money by its manageability. "You don't need to manage the client side so this reduces your total cost of ownership," he said.
Based on the Windows CE operating platform, the Aero 8000 "has instant-on capability and a long-life battery. It has a full 10 inch screen, large keyboard, a V90 modem, and voice recognition capabilities," said Sandra Lee-Jones, Compaq's product marketing manager, displays and peripheral.
According to Scerri, it is the software packaged with the Aero 8000 that differentiates it from the competition. "Mobile computing means you need to concentrate on security and Compaq provides security software such as asset tracking. It also comes standard with a CD that lets you do things like PowerPoint presentations."
Compaq partnered with software developers such as the River Run Software Group, Lotus and Novell to enable the device with e-mail, calendar and contacts capabilities.
Yet the idea of a thin-client mobile solution is to not have to rely on packaged software or Windows CE for the device's performance. "You can just hook up to the server via a modem and eventually the smart card technology incorporated in the Aero 8000 will be able to write entire applications," said Scerri.
At present the smart cards are mostly used for security and connectivity. "The smart card can be your login to the network and can then be password-protected," said Lee-Jones.
Scerri claims mobile thin-client technology is prevalent in Europe and is determined to grow a similar market in Australia. "Compaq is trying to break out of the straitjacket of providing CPU technology," said Scerri, who anticipates Compaq will initially focus on the education, health and defence markets.