8 New Notebooks For Road Warriors

Once upon a time, notebook computers were a specialist's tool, restricted to an exclusive group of heavily traveled workers for whom the deployment of expensive and fragile equipment was cost-effective. No more. With plentiful broadband and continuing improvements in remote access and communications technologies, almost anyone can be a mobile worker.

A recent study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that 68 percent of corporate executives surveyed considered more than 10 percent of their employees to be "mobile workers," and 28 percent considered more than one-third of their workforce mobile. The same study found that one-third of executives believed that only specialized workers need to be mobile. As the price, performance and durability of various notebooks begin to approach those of desktops, it's beginning to make less business sense to keep people tethered to an office.

"Mobility has become ubiquitous," says Kevin Roberts, product manager with Toshiba's Digital Products division. "Businesses have come to expect the added productivity that comes from keeping workers mobile. Toshiba wants me to have a notebook because I can take it home with me and still be productive there, and we don't have to stop e-mailing just because it's after hours."

Every major notebook vendor has launched new products in recent weeks. Market leader Hewlett-Packard, which shipped 18 percent of all notebooks worldwide in 2006, released new models earlier this month to capitalize on Intel's new Santa Rosa platform, as did Lenovo, Dell, Toshiba, Sony, Acer and Fujitsu.

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Durability has also been a major driver in new product design. Panasonic, whose high-margin ruggedized notebooks drove the fastest channel revenue growth of any notebook vendor in 2006, launched new lower-priced "business rugged" models in April. Dell, No. 2 with 17 percent of global units shipped, announced its own ruggedized model in January. Lenovo has heavily promoted durability features in its new Santa Rosa line, including a "roll cage" to help protect the LCD screen, while HP has highlighted that it had avoided the battery recalls that have recently plagued other vendors.

Different Users, Different Needs

What was once a relatively uniform user base has split up into several different subgroups, each with its own usage profile and demands for functionality. Vendors have followed suit, providing a plethora of product models with a wide variety of different combinations of functionality and price points. In practice, however, notebook users can be loosely grouped into three broad categories: road warriors, desktop-replacement users and field users.

The classic business traveler--the road warrior--hasn't disappeared, but may not always be in the driver's seat as far as the notebook market is concerned. This user base continues to grow as businesses take advantage of new mobile technology by expecting a more diverse group of employees to travel, but most of those users were early adopters, and have been relying on their notebooks for years.

Knowledgeable users expecting to use their notebooks to address a well-defined set of needs, road warriors can often demand more expensive hardware from their employers. They know what to expect from a notebook and are looking to milk every last drop of functionality out of theirs. Which precise mix of features they're looking for, however, can vary significantly depending on their precise job descriptions.

"Sophisticated users understand that they're making an investment, and are going to be willing to pay a little more," says Ann Avery, North America Commercial Product Marketing Manager at HP. "They're going to pick different spots on the mobility/performance continuum, but they understand the costs of not making that investment."

NEXT: The "true" mobile user.

"At the high end, they're all different," says Neil Popli, president and CEO of San Francisco-based solution provider Microgear. "I sell to a lot of engineers and technical guys, and they want a lot of processing power and a great big screen. Someone who's on the road more is probably more worried about weight. Of course, everyone wants both, but no one can seem to manage that." Popli also notes that road warriors often make their own decisions about hardware, which keeps him flexible about the vendors he uses; he says he's even seeing healthy sales in Apple notebooks.

Most of the growth in the commercial notebook market, however, is a by-product of the convergence of desktop and notebook price and performance. Desktop PCs aren't going to disappear any time soon; there are too many advantages to inexpensive, easily serviceable, specifically nonmobile hardware. As businesses look to refresh their existing hardware, however, they're finding the price differences between comparable notebooks and desktops marginal relative to potential productivity gains from giving normally on-site workers some remote capacity.

"Clearly, the migration is under way," according to Chris Ferry of the Technology Integration Group, a San Diego-based solution provider. "The mobility factor is something that most people are trying to get to. You're always going to have heavy Citrix users who don't want a lot at the client end, and you're going to have people who really want the few hundred dollars' price difference, but there's definitely a move in that direction," Ferry says.

Sumit Agnihotry, Acer's director of mobile product marketing, agrees. "The transition from desktop to laptop is happening faster in the consumer space--commercial is more cautious--but it's igniting here too. It's not going to be long before mobility becomes the driver behind these hardware refreshes."

Price is often the primary factor in selecting specific desktop-replacement hardware; businesses frequently buy the hardware in relatively large orders, and while they may be interested in durability, they don't expect the user to have significant performance demands. Even vendors like HP and Panasonic, which have traditionally focused on higher-end hardware, are starting to extend their product lines to lower price points in order to catch this shift. "Those guys are swapping out a bunch of $500 machines, and per-unit cost makes a big difference," Microgear's Popli says. "They're not interested in bells and whistles."

The smallest, but perhaps fastest-growing, group is the "true mobile" users: people who need computing power and connectivity out in the field. These users generally fall into specific vertical markets--real estate, insurance, transportation, emergency medicine--that until recently were relatively untouched by notebook sales. Improvements in wireless networking and "ruggedized" hardware have only now made it practical to keep these users tied into their employers' networks while they're out in the field.

Field users typically place heavy demands on their hardware and often require unusual configurations and heavily customized solutions. Though there can be major differences between, say, a real estate agent and a construction foreman, they almost invariably subject their notebooks to substantially more wear and tear than their office-based counterparts.

Moreover, while they may not have particular performance requirements, they can be very stringent about other necessary functionality. Wireless WAN connectivity, for example, is an absolute necessity for most, while a tablet conversion option may be a priority for verticals like real estate and insurance.

"Just about all of my business is project-based," says John Moelter of Mobilintel, a Norcross, Ga.-based VAR that specializes in field users.

"Break-fix isn't really part of my business plan, and what service there is on the hardware mostly goes back to Panasonic," he adds. Given the amount of custom work that goes into these projects, we should have our hands full for the foreseeable future."

Opportunity Knocks

No matter which submarket they target, notebook sales do offer a number of advantages for solution providers. Most obvious is the price premium over desktop PCs; it may be small at the low end, but it does add up. They also generally have a faster refresh rate and allow for additional margin on sales of redundant or specialized peripherals, like batteries and docking stations.

"No one's going to bring their monitor, speakers or keyboard when they take their laptop home for the night. You're going to sell them all that, plus an extra battery," Toshiba's Roberts says.

More significant, however, are the solutions and services that can be built around notebooks. Mobility requires more than just smaller and lighter hardware, and clients need more help to take advantage of the opportunities that hardware provides.

"Laptops mean wireless networks, they mean remote access, they mean extra security," says J.R. Guthrie of Advantage Micro in Tucson, Ariz. "All of those need service, training and support."

Clients understand the productivity gains that mobility solutions offer them, and they know how it will affect their bottom lines.

Give them what they need and they'll be happy to affect your bottom line as well.

NEXT: 3 technologies that could shake up the notebook world.

Much like with servers and desktops, most recent significant technological improvements to notebooks have been less than evolutionary -- relatively modest gains in battery life, weight, memory, storage and processing power. But a handful of technologies have the potential to influence demand and upgrades. They may or may not turn out to be groundbreaking, but they're all worth keeping an eye on.

1. Wireless WAN
The success of wireless LAN technologies in the form of 802.11/Wi-Fi networks may well be the single biggest factor driving the widespread adoption of notebook computers. Even the newest iteration of the 802.11 protocol, however, retains a significant limitation: short range. No one is holding their breath for municipal Wi-Fi, and even as Wi-Fi hotspots proliferate, it can still be frustrating and time-consuming to locate one on the fly.

Enter the wireless WAN (WWAN) modem. Offered by all of the major cellphone carriers, these devices tap into digital cellular networks to provide broadband connectivity without a nearby wireless access point. Just like a cellphone, they can even work inside a moving vehicle.

WWAN modems are quickly becoming a must-have feature for power users and field service users. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, 27 percent of corporate executives report that their mobile workers used notebooks with WWAN modems as a primary means of remote access. That number will only rise as coverage improves and prices fall.

2. Full-Disk Encryption
The possibility of a lost or stolen laptop may be the biggest security threat presented by the continued growth of notebook adoption in SMB, enterprise and government markets. In addition to the obvious damage resulting directly from lost or compromised data, regulatory disclosure requirements make such incidents very public -- very embarrassing. By rendering stored data essentially inaccessible, full-disk encryption (FDE) products provide both an effective defense against the security breach and a legal "safe harbor" against mandatory disclosure.

Demand for software-based FDE solutions has grown dramatically over the past 12 months and shows no signs of slowing. New notebook hard drives from Seagate and Hitachi incorporating hardware-based encryption promise to raise FDE's profile even further.

3. Solid-State Drives
Recent price drops have begun to place solid-state flash-based drives within the reach of notebook manufacturers and upgraders. Lacking moving parts, these drives are faster and more durable, and require less power than traditional hard drives. They still lag behind traditional drives in capacity, however, and are too expensive for most uses. A 64-GB drive -- the largest currently available -- could increase the cost of a laptop by thousands of dollars. Look for this to change over the next 12 months.