Enterprise: Business hardware part III

20 Jul 2004

If the PC industry could be said to have a ‘sexy’ end, then laptops and notebooks are currently occupying it. While sales of traditional PCs continue to potter along uneventfully, notebooks are flying off the shelves as both businesses and consumers realise the benefits of getting mobile.

Last year, while desktop sales grew by a reasonable 12.4pc, notebook shipments were up a staggering 34.5pc, with the fourth quarter of 2003 seeing record shipments right across Europe and growth of 44pc year on year in the local market.

Even a cursory examination of the market shows there are several factors conspiring to push up the sales of laptops while desktops lag behind. Clearly price is an important factor with mobile units no longer commanding a healthy premium on their deskbound counterparts. Some second-tier manufacturers are being particularly aggressive in this regard, with the likes of Acer offering models starting at €799, but even Dell and Toshiba are now offering models at this price point.

Greg Tierney, product marketing manager with Dell, believes that the growth is being driven by the closure of the technology gap between desktops and laptops. Just a few years ago laptops were heavy, had short battery lives and were less highly specified than desktops. Now Tierney says they represent better value than before and are more cost effective to support in a business environment.

One of the major advances on the technology front was last year’s introduction of Centrino by Intel. Centrino is a set of technologies designed to enhance the mobile experience and includes the Pentium M processor, the Intel 855 chipset and integrated Wi-Fi networking. While the headlines at the time may have trumpeted the fact that wireless networking was now mainstream thanks to Intel’s support, the impact of Centrino is actually much wider. At its most basic it means longer battery life in thinner, lighter notebooks.

“Centrino has done a great job of bringing an awareness of Wi-Fi to the mass market,” says Adrian Horne, ThinkVantage technologies consultant with IBM. “For the business user and the enterprise customer the biggest breakthrough was in battery life. It virtually doubled from three to six hours.”

Horne believes this level of battery life transforms the proposition of a laptop as mobile workers can now leave home in the morning, carry out their days’ work as they travel around and not have to recharge the machine before they come home in the evening.

Kevin Nolan, category manager with Hewlett-Packard’s personal systems group, believes customers are being swayed by the technology industry’s total cost of ownership argument — laptops may still carry a 10-20pc price premium but the additional purchase cost is easily clawed back over the life of the product thanks to the productivity gains of having a mobile PC. A recent study by the Meta Group suggested that employees with laptops enjoy an extra six hours a week of productivity over users of traditional PCs.

While the advantages of laptops are clear to see, the criteria used to assess them during the procurement process are very different to those applied to a desktop purchase. Given that users will be using them out of the office without the safety net of an IT department at the end of the corridor, reliability becomes a key feature. Enhanced warranties that provide same-day international support are also going to be important for road warriors, but probably less so for office-based users.

Although the growth rates for laptop sales are impressive, they don’t tell the entire story as in unit terms the amount of desktop machines still surpasses mobiles. Ciaran O’Donoghue, sales director with indigenous PC manufacturer Iqon, doesn’t believe this situation will exist for much longer and expects the market to be split 50/50 sooner rather than later.

While laptops are lighter and more powerful than ever, many travelling executives are now opting to use a handheld PDA. They are not as heavy as a laptop and can also be fired up much quicker if a user has a few minutes. They have also developed in capability that they enable users to work on office documents such as spreadsheets, collect email and even run a presentation off them by connecting to a data projector.

Richard Baird, sales director with Wasp Technologies, one of Palm One’s main Irish partners, says that many executives and field staff are now opting for a “two-piece” solution based on a Palm T3 and a Bluetooth mobile phone, which can be connected to applications back at the office such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange using remote access software. Models that now offer wide screen capability by shifting the screen perspective can be teamed up with wireless keyboards to give much of the functionality of a laptop at a fraction of the weight.

Although smart phones that combine a PDA and mobile phone are available, and Palm recently introduced its own Treo 600 version to the Irish market, Baird does not expect smart phones to have the same widespread appeal. “A one-piece device will always be a compromise because you have a smaller screen and data input is not as easy,” says Baird. “First and foremost it has to be a good mobile phone that is easy to use and small.” As a result he expects smart phones to be favoured by senior executives and others who only want access to email on the go but aren’t running business applications when out of the office.

By John Collins