Panasonic Rugged Toughbooks Take On Dell, Symbol

PCSC, the Secaucus, N.J.-based developer and manufacturer of the Toughbook line of rugged notebook PCs, outlined its product and channel plans at its eighth annual Panasonic TP3 Summer Session, held this week in Phoenix.

Rance Poehler, president of PCSC, introduced two upcoming additions to the Toughbook line.

One of them, the new Toughbook 52, is being targeted at Dell's first entry into the semi-rugged mobile PC market, the new Dell Latitude D620 All Terrain Grade, which was introduced just a couple months ago.

Poehler welcomed Dell and others like Lenovo to enter the rugged notebook PC market as an opportunity for its solution providers to increase sales of the Toughbooks.

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"The great news is, we've already won several deals because Dell talks about their new rugged PCs," he said. "Customers hear about them, and then start Googling on 'rugged,' and see Panasonic pop up everywhere. We are actually getting leads, or I should say sales, from Dell reps."

Unlike PCSC, which has its own engineering and design engineers and manufacturers nearly all the components in its notebook PCs, Dell and other competitors in the market ask their OEM suppliers like Quanta, Twinhead, and Mitac to come out with similar products to Panasonic's, Poehler said. "They're not doing R&D," he said.

PCSC's counter to Dell's entry is the new Toughbook 52, a semi-rugged model that was designed starting over two years ago to stop Dell, Poehler said.

It is based on the Intel Core 2 Duo processor 7300 or 7100. The Toughbook 52 includes 1 Gbyte of DDR2 SDRAM, a removable 80-Gbyte or 120-Gbyte shock-mounted hard drive, and a 15.4-inch LCD display, all built into a sealed magnesium alloy case with a built-in handle.

Unique to the Toughbook 52, which is slated to be formally unveiled next week, is a new version of PCSC's spill-resistant keyboard. The new version has a hole through which water, when poured on the keyboard, is channeled to protect the computer. Poehler demonstrated the feature by pouring a glass of water directly on the keyboard, with the water coming out of the hole and dropping to the floor. "It's a design feature, not a flaw," he said.

PCSC is also gearing up to meet an expected move by Dell to bring a fully-rugged notebook PC, the XTG series, to market, Poehler said. "We will arm you with the tools you need to fight that product as well," he said.

Solution providers who saw the Toughbook 52 said they see eye-to-eye with PCSC and Poehler about the importance of uniting to face Dell.

Mike Smola, senior business development manager for Software Plus, a St. Louis-based Microsoft LAR and a channel partner to vendors such as Panasonic, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo, said he is a big fan of Poehler's Dell message.

"We fight Dell every day," Smola said. "Panasonic is a true manufacturer. Dell is built on others' manufacturing and R&D. We're seeing Dell become vulnerable. It's earnings are sliding. This is our time to take advantage of it."

Poehler is dead-on with his analysis of Dell's move into the rugged mobile PC space, said Dennis Scott, president of Surface SystemsInstruments, a Mill Valley, Calif.-based developer of road construction test equipment and reseller of Toughbooks to customers in that vertical market.

"Dell's foray into this space really is an opportunity for us," Scott said. "As Dell comes into this space, customers get more awareness of rugged attributes, and will in turn move into the rugged concept. And the nice thing is, once customers move to rugged systems, they don't want anything else. They see the ROI and minimum downtime (of rugged mobile PCs)."

Poehler also showed photos of a completely new product line for PCSC, the rugged Ultra-Mobile PC, or UMPC.

The UMPC, expected to ship sometime next year after Intel starts shipping the new low-power LPIA processor, is targeted at the niche market between Pocket PCs and traditional mobile PCs, a market now dominated by Symbol Technologies, which in January was acquired by Motorola.

"The ultra-mobile PC market is dominated by Symbol," Poehler said. "But they focus on manufacturing and supply chains, and don't come into our verticals. We will have applications specific to our markets. But don't think for one second we won't attach Symbol in their markets."

PCSC is going after the developers in the handheld space that can create better solutions using a full operating system instead of the typical handheld platform, Poehler said.

"What's driving this is the customer," he said. "A C-level executive will look at that and say, it's much easier for me to support. I don't need two sets of operating systems and applications."

Poehler also said that PCSC will replace the three models in its 5 series of business-rugged mobile PCs with the 7 series by the end of the year. The 7 series is similar to the 5 series, except that it will get even more rugged features, including the new spill-resistant keyboard with spill-through hole.

Poehler further promised to decrease the number of revisions, or what he called "marks," to its notebook line.

Solution providers in the audience applauded when Poehler said PCSC will limit "mark" models to about one change per year. "There's a risk," he said. "We may not have the latest and greatest Intel CPU. But in talking to you, we see that this is more important."

It is, said Smola. "We establish a standard for customers," he said. "For every new mark we need a new image and standard. It's a big pain point. People don't want to manage multiple images."