Mobile users watch market take shape

Notebook computer buyers make difficult demands on the market, seeking heaps of features and processing power while desiring a small, light package that does not cost too much.

"The users want it all," said Marine Corps Maj. Jim Cummisky, the mobile computing project officer at Camp Pendleton, Calif. "They want a 21-inch screen, a full-size computer, a masseuse, and they want it all to fit in their pocket," he said only somewhat facetiously. The Marines have tested computers for eventual use in the battlefield.

Recent airline restrictions on the number of carry-on items were the result of many travelers carrying a hanging bag, a briefcase and a notebook computer. Now travelers are faced with trying to stuff those fat notebooks into briefcases, and the notebooks just do not fit well.

Recognizing that they cannot have it all, users must decide what they really need to do their jobs when shopping for a notebook computer and then choose a device that is optimized for those tasks. PC makers are breaking the market once known as "laptops" into numerous segments, each targeting different users, in an effort to satisfy those specific users' needs.

One of the two emerging categories of portable computers is composed of the very small, slim and light subnotebooks that are sometimes called mini-notebooks. They are very compact, usually about an inch thick and weighing less than 3 pounds, but they run standard Microsoft Corp. Windows 95 or Windows 98 applications.

The other product class is the Windows CE Professional Handheld PC (H/PC) Jupiter-class device. Windows CE is an operating system that Microsoft designed specifically to run on small devices. These products are about the same size and shape as the mini-notebooks, but they run Windows CE applications and cost about half as much as many Windows 98 machines. Also, their batteries can last 10 hours or more.

Both types of devices look appealing at first glance, but there are limitations that steer most customers to the traditional, heavier desktop-replacement notebook systems in the end, vendors said.

"When they see these little guys, everyone goes ga-ga," said Jan O'Hara, federal channel manager for Panasonic Personal Computer Co. "But when push comes to shove, they spend another $200 [more than a mini-notebook] and get a real notebook."

Still, some agencies are buying into the new options. The Army's Rock Island Arsenal, Rock Island, Ill., chose a mini-notebook over standard notebooks and Windows CE palmtop models.

"For individuals who spend a great deal of time on travel, the standard notebook and case become very heavy, and we were experiencing an increasing number of complaints from our users," said Sheila Allison, information officer at the Rock Island Arsenal. "If a traveler chose to take a CE palmtop model to ease their burden, they then faced [storage] space restrictions as well as an inability to read e-mail attachments."

Additionally, Allison said, if frequent travelers chose a palmtop model for trips, Rock Island Arsenal was faced with buying either a desktop or a standard notebook computer to meet the travelers' primary computing needs. "The CE solution, therefore, added significantly to our purchase and maintenance costs," she said. "The purchase of mini-notebooks gives our travelers the advantage of a lightweight, full-function primary computing device while reducing our [total cost of ownership]."

Most observers say mini-notebooks and H/PCs are suitable for specific applications and tasks, but they are not suitable as primary PCs. Nevertheless, mini-notebooks will account for about 12 percent of the overall notebook market, and the H/PC market will be slightly smaller than that for the next few years, according to Randy Guisto, director of mobile technology research at market research firm International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.

H/PCs include Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Jornada 820 and NEC Computer Systems Division's MobilePro 800. These machines run a low-power processor, such as Intel Corp.'s Strongarm SA-1100 or NEC's VR4121. These chips consume much less power than traditional Pentium and Pentium II-class processors, but because the Windows CE operating system and applications are much smaller than Windows 98 software, these chips provide adequate performance.

These smaller systems also get by with only a smattering of memory—about 32M of RAM and 24M of ROM—to hold the operating system and applications, and they have no hard drive. The displays tend to be smaller and dimmer than notebook displays to save power. Some of the devices use resistive overlays on the screen that provide touch-screen pointing, but the overlays dim the screen even more.

Because H/PCs have all their software in ROM and RAM, they turn on instantly, without the tedious, time-consuming boot-up of a disk operating system. This makes the devices even more appealing for applications such as contact management, in which the user wants to look up a small bit of information and does not want to spend five minutes doing it.

The power-saving processor and screen and the absence of a hard drive contribute to the H/PC's other calling card: very long battery life. This means the machines literally can work all day away from power sources, making them ideal for certain mobile applications.

"We're very excited about Windows CE devices," Cummisky said. "A computer that does not have any juice left in it is a fairly limited asset on a battlefield," he said.

An additional benefit of leaving out fragile hard drives is that H/PCs can be more reliable than notebook computers. "The No. 1 technical support call for notebooks is hard drive failure," said Kevin Habre, technical marketing manager for HP. "Hard drives account for 70 to 80 percent of all failures."

Mini-notebook Market

Mini-notebooks come in a couple of basic shapes. There are smaller, but thicker, novel-size devices, such as Toshiba American Information Systems Inc.'s Libretto and Mitsubishi Electronics America Inc.'s Amity, and there are larger, but slimmer, models closer to the size of a PC World magazine. This style includes Dell Computer Corp.'s Latitude LT, Hitachi PC Corp.'s Visionbook Traveler 600, Mitsubishi's Pedion, Panasonic's Toughbook 33, Sony Electronics Inc.'s VAIO 505 and Toshiba's Portege 3010.

"Information technology managers were getting their doors banged down by people who said, 'We need a small notebook for e-mail and presentations,'" said Jay Parker, the Latitude product manager for Dell. "We had a lot of customers asking for that."

The packaging of the two mini-notebook styles differs slightly, but the main functional difference is that the smaller machines have smaller displays and keyboards than the larger ones. Otherwise, they are very similar.

This class of notebook typically uses a medium-speed Pentium processor, rather than a more powerful and power-hungry Pentium II, but the performance is sufficient for most mobile applications.

Like bigger notebooks, mini-notebooks include modems, Universal Serial Bus ports and PC Card slots, so they will support the usual multitude of add-on devices. But they leave out devices such as built-in floppy disk drives and CD-ROM drives because users rarely need those devices when traveling. These drives may be attached externally when installing software, but basic file transfers can be done with the infrared port.

The screens and keyboards on the mini-notebooks are smaller than those on the full-size desktop replacement notebooks, so they are less suitable for touch-typing. And trimming the size and weight takes a chunk out of the battery, so these machines can have significantly shorter battery lives than heavier notebooks.

But they run regular Windows applications, unlike the H/PCs, which require applications that are written for Windows CE, so mini-notebooks are a bit easier to use with existing applications and agencywide infrastructures, such as Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes.

But if both types of small, lightweight and affordable notebooks are so convenient and capable, why are most buyers expected to choose a conventional 9-pound notebook? The answer lies in how the machines are used—and by whom.

"The key is to figure out the type of end user," said Chris Abate, group marketing manager for Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. "An engineer who needs maximum performance and a full-size display needs a conventional notebook."

A common characteristic of mini-notebooks and H/PCs is that they are supplemental devices, working in a supporting role to a desktop PC. People who need to use the same device on their desk and on the road need a full-blown desktop replacement. And those people who travel so extensively that they need to do everything they do in the office while traveling also need conventional notebooks.

But for periodic travelers who need to check e-mail on the road, give presentations, write some notes and maybe update the occasional spreadsheet, these smaller machines can lighten their burden. They also are ideal for vertical applications, in which the notebook is a dedicated device used by mobile workers to do a specific task and little else.

"People need to ask, 'When was the last time I used that floppy drive?' " said Mark Thoreson, inside sales manager for Government Technology Services Inc.

Users also need to realistically evaluate the kind of applications they really run on their notebooks. "I could not care less if you can design a jet on [a desktop replacement notebook] because you are not going to do that anyway," Habre said.

"Some people do not necessarily need as much on the road as they need on their desktop," said Phil Redman, program manager for wireless and mobile computing at the Yankee Group, Boston. "They are not going to do number crunching or [create] multimedia presentations," he said. "They do not even use a fraction of what is on there."

The problem is that many mobile users now want to have a notebook computer as their desktop system too. "The small designs will always be behind on bells and whistles compared to desktop replacements," IDC's Guisto said. "The days of having a PC and a notebook are going away."

"The government is not an environment where it is easy to justify two machines," agreed Harry Heisler, vice president and general manager of Micron Government Computer Systems Inc. "They are replacing older desktops with desktop replacement notebooks."

But for some mobile vertical applications within the federal government, the small computers seem to be fill the bill.

Military Puts Notebooks to the Test

The Marines are testing a variety of mobile computers in a planned battlefield command and control network that will let company commanders, platoon commanders and unit leaders all have access to the command and control data they need to do their jobs. At the top of this chain, company commanders are using full-size notebooks—in this case, Panasonic Toughbook 27s.

But at the platoon commander level, the lighter weight of the Toughbook 33 mini-notebook is better suited to the task, according to Cummisky. And unit commanders will have the smaller and less expensive HP Jornada 820 H/PC, he said.

Meanwhile, the Army is using mini-notebooks installed in trucks to help coordinate logistics, according to Jerry Neuner, the Dominium sales manager for Arinc Inc., a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based integrator. The system combines a Global Positioning System, geographic information systems software and wireless communications to let the Army control the movement of its supply trucks more precisely, Neuner said. The Army is using Panasonic's CF-31 mini-notebook but will start buying the new, hardened Toughbook 33, he said.

In both cases, the military has found it to be preferable and more cost-effective to buy what is available to address a need, rather than buying specially designed military-specific hardware for the job.

"If this thing takes a bullet, or if someone drops it, you can buy 10 more for the cost of a [custom] ruggedized computer," Neuner said.

Other federal agencies also need lightweight, inexpensive mobile computers. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center is using H/PCs from Casio Inc., Compaq Computer Corp. and HP for the more mundane chores of checking e-mail, tracking schedules and checking the weather at launch sites.

The U.S. Postal Service is using HP Jornadas to let delivery route managers plan mail distribution using a custom-written application.

The incompatibility of Windows CE with existing Windows 98 applications will be the primary obstacle to acceptance of H/PCs, observers say, but users are pleased with the ease of converting existing applications to run on Windows CE.

"Microsoft did it exactly right," Cummisky said. "They created a rich programming environment. If you want to write code for CE, it is very easy. We were able to port to CE in a couple months at negligible cost."When you write software for CE, you use the same tools you use for Windows 98," Habre said. "They are writing applications for PCs in Visual Basic and C++" that also work for Windows CE, he said.

But writing new applications and waiting for vendors to update existing packages is a headache that some IT managers do not want. "There is a huge investment in support up front" in switching to Windows CE, Guisto said.

But Habre is confident that time is on the side of Windows CE. "What is going to happen when Windows 2000 comes out?" he asked. "It will be a resource hog even worse than Windows NT 4.0. There is no way you are going to get that on a mini-notebook hard drive."

-- Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va. He can be reached at dcarney@fcw.com.

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