Who would want to be tied to a desktop PC when they could roam at will with a portable? You might as well ask chickens whether they'd sooner rot in a battery house or strut around the farmyard.
A notebook PC can match everything fixed machines can do; just look at Apple's new PowerBook G4, with its 1GHz processor, 54MB networking, DVD burner and 17in display, all in a 1in-thick case weighing under 7lbs.
With a PDA you can carry your life in your jacket pocket, seamlessly synchronised with your office network whenever you wander through a wireless hotspot.
Work is supposed to be something we do, rather than somewhere we go, and a portable device sounds like the ideal companion.
Many buyers agree. Research firm IDC reports that in 2002 notebook shipments in Europe, Middle East & Africa grew by 19 per cent, compared with a mere 3.5 per cent growth in total PC shipments, even though prices are falling.
Strong double-digit growth is also predicted for this year. Entry-level notebooks showed the highest growth in 2002, thanks to low prices and low penetration among small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and consumers.
SMEs operating in process manufacturing, communication, transport, banking and financial services are particularly interested in mobile technology, according to IDC.
The notebook design has stood the test of time. "The standard A4 notebook is, and I think will remain, the most popular size," said Russell Blackburn, general manager of the Hewlett Packard (HP) division at distributor Computer 2000.
"It has the best balance of screen and keyboard size, battery life and weight. Smaller machines are not as comfortable to use for regular work and machines with longer battery lives are bulkier and heavier. For many, the full-functioning laptop PC will be the product of choice."
The situation with pocket-sized, or PDA, machines is much less rosy, however. PDA sales, which are dominated by Palm and HP, actually fell last year, according to Gartner Dataquest, by 6.7 per cent in western Europe and by more than nine per cent worldwide.
Average prices also fell, thanks to discounting and the appearance of new low-cost models such as the £79 Palm Zire. Gartner predicts that average PDA prices will fall by 15 per cent this year.
PDA manufacturers are full of bright ideas about how people could benefit from their products.
Colin Holloway, UK marketing manager at Palm, said: "The major benefit of PDAs is portability, allowing business people to use 10 or 20 minutes in airports, stations or motorway stops to answer emails and so on.
"Handhelds will replace laptops in certain circumstances. In market research or service engineering, laptops are too expensive and powerful, whereas handhelds can use tailored forms and synchronise data and reports straight back to base.
"The balance will change as broader functionality comes to PDAs, such as integrated telephony, Global Positioning System [GPS] and wireless networking."
But PDAs remain a niche purchase. "PDAs offer a very good solution for maximum portability and battery life, but you sacrifice the computing power needed to perform complex tasks quickly," explained Mike Bonello, mobile marketing manager at Intel.
"Also, the very small form factor makes it difficult to enter large amounts of data such as email, or to look through significant amounts of data for extended periods."
Because the devices are so different, some people own both laptops and PDAs, but the number can't be very high; hand-held computers and smartphones accounted for just 11 per cent of total portable computer shipments in western Europe last year, according to IDC.
Tablet PCs promise to go some way towards bridging the gap, as well as providing an option for technophobes and non-typists who prefer a handwriting interface, not to mention raking in yet more revenue for Microsoft, which is pushing Windows for Tablet PCs.
"The tablet PC represents a step-change in notebook technology: a humanised notebook able to adapt to the way people work," enthused Steve Gales, senior category manager at HP.
"Users can take handwritten notes in a meeting for later reference or conversion to text, annotate documents or presentations using digital ink, read electronic magazines [e-books], or discretely send handwritten messages wirelessly during meetings.
"Back at the desk, it turns into a full-featured desktop with monitor, mouse and keyboard."
Bonello pointed out that tablets have a long history as a specialised (if rather pricey) vertical-market product for people such as doctors or waiters who need to enter data standing up.
He believes that the convertible laptop design with a swivelling screen, which combines tablet capabilities with a conventional keyboard, will become popular.
But analysts are sceptical about the tablet's prospects, at least in the short term.
Gartner Dataquest predicts that early sales will largely be restricted to evaluation units and gadget-hunters, and that tablets will account for just 1.2 per cent of worldwide notebook shipments this year, although this could climb to 35 per cent by 2007.
"A lack of application support, clumsy hardware designs and a price premium will be barriers for most users," suggested Ken Dulaney, research area director at Gartner.
Tablets need to get cheaper and more reliable. Andrew Brown, mobile computing research manager at IDC, said: "For tablet PCs to succeed they need to be available at a nominal extra cost compared with comparable notebook specifications."
He added that early problems with mechanical reliability on modular products and handwriting recognition may affect initial sales.
It is too early for tablets to start replacing desktop PCs in significant numbers, and it is doubtful that PDAs ever will. But what are the chances of notebooks usurping the place of the traditional beige one-eyed monster?
Intel estimates that nearly a third of current PC sales are mobile devices, a substantial increase on the situation five years ago. Other vendors agree.
"The end-user, whether consumer, SME or corporate, is replacing desktop units with laptops in many cases," explained Andrew Barker, UK marketing director at Fujitsu Siemens.
Gales added: "About four out of 10 people in a commercial environment use a notebook, and this is their only computer."
Desktops cling to life
Analysts predict that the increase in sales of portables will continue to outstrip growth in desktop PC sales. But few experts think that portables will entirely replace desktops in the foreseeable future.
Blackburn believes that the balance will settle at around 60:40 in favour of the desktop.
Amanda Jones, sales director at distributor Interchange, said: "While there has been a marked increase in portable sales, particularly to SMEs, which reflects an increase in mobile and flexible working, there will always be a need for desk-based PCs.
"Call centres, telephone sales offices and the like are unlikely to embrace portable technology for a static work force."
Despite continual advances in mobile technologies, notebooks remain about 20 per cent more expensive than an equivalent desktop PC, while lacking some of the latter's reliability, scalability and user comfort.
Buyers must expect this to continue, according to Bonello. "It is due to the extra engineering expertise required to fit the same level of functionality into a much smaller form factor," he said.
"This is no different from other electronic devices; you usually pay more for smaller cameras, MP3 players and personal stereos."
Wireless bandwidths are increasing with the adoption of 54MB 802.11G (as in the new Apple PowerBook G4), and overall sales of wireless local area network (Lan) cards are growing rapidly.
PDA-based GPS navigation systems are becoming popular, according to distributor Widget. And IDC indicated that built-in digital imaging could boost the appeal of PDAs.
This year's most significant development in mobile technology will be Intel's Centrino (formerly code-named Banias), a chipset that promises desktop-equivalent processor performance, an hour's extra battery life, seamless wireless connectivity and smaller, lighter hardware. The first Centrino PCs are expected to be launched in March.
Many vendors are enthusiastic. "Banias processors are designed from the ground up for mobility, and allow us to get closer than ever to the concept of a notebook with true all-day battery life without having to compromise on performance," said Gales.
But Gartner believes that, although Centrino will appeal to corporates wanting 'thin and light' systems with wireless connectivity, SMEs and consumers will prefer cheaper portables based on desktop processors.
"We are finding that consumers choose desktop processors in their laptops," confirmed Barker.
For many hardware resellers, portables are becoming a necessary, if not hugely profitable, part of their portfolio. The technology is not difficult, according to Blackburn.
"It's really just a matter of knowing what all the options are, being able to talk about the communications and security features that are available and, most importantly, making those features work," he explained.
"This will increase the potential to add value significantly, even at the lower end of the market."
Higher unit prices and slightly higher margins make portables a little more attractive than standard desktop kit, and there are more add-on goodies to sell, from carry cases and spare batteries to portable printers and GPS units.
But for the most part, portables are a gateway to more valuable sales rather than a lucrative item in themselves.
"As users become more computer literate, resellers will find it harder to add value to portables, as there is no complexity to the sale," said Jones.
"Value will come from looking at the environment the portable is to be used in and providing a total connectivity solution. Resellers need to keep abreast of the latest mobile technology options and push these to add further value.
"Portables are now commoditised and margins are very low. But resellers will continue to offer them as users see the benefits of mobile computing."
Users are increasingly seeing the costs of mobile computing, too. Gartner claims that the total cost of ownership of a PDA can approach $3,000 per user per year (60 per cent capital, 30 per cent operations and 10 per cent administration).
Total benefits of ownership
To counter this, resellers should stress what Gartner calls the total benefits of ownership (TBO), which may include increased productivity and revenue, accuracy and efficiency, and the elimination of redundant processes.
TBO is complex to identify in general applications, but it can be more clear-cut in vertical applications such as supply-chain automation.
Many businesses are concerned about the security implications of sensitive data sitting in employees' cars and briefcases and flying through the ether via scantily protected wireless Lan and Bluetooth links.
But these threats can be minimised, provided that the IT department knows what's going on.
"The majority of PDAs currently get into the business as personal products, expensed to the business or paid for out of the buyer's own pocket," said Holloway.
"Businesses need to take control of this and have a strategy for handheld implementation, otherwise they are exposed to security risks."
Resellers should be aware of the security risks to themselves as well. Concentrations of small, high-value items are vulnerable to thieves, as the £200,000 ram-raid on distributor Portable last month demonstrated.
In stores, retailers must balance the advantages of displaying live units with the risk of them being stolen.
Integration skills will be in demand. "The 'interchangeability' and co-operation of wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, wireless Lans and GSM/GPRS/UMTS will be critical," according to Mark Klein, handheld product marketing manager at Sharp.
"The continued focus will be on making the different elements work together, rather than on completely innovative devices that work in a vacuum."
Fitting the device to the needs of the user is another area in which resellers can help their clients.
"Many larger customers use different designs of notebook within their organisation," said Gales.
"It's important that organisations realise that users are different. Some will benefit from the extreme mobility of a sub-notebook, others need performance and expansibility."
Other users, however, won't benefit from a mobile computer at all. And, despite the best efforts of the portable industry, they are likely to remain in the majority for some years to come.
CASE STUDY: ITP
Those who believe in a new age of wholly mobile computing are doomed to disappointment, according to Nick Evans, product manager at value-add reseller ITP.
"Portable computing will never replace desktops," he stated. "Desktops are seen as essential, whereas laptops tend to be used in specific situations: in presentations, for example, or for mobile workers."
Corporates still view portables as a headache. "IT managers tend to limit the use of laptops to prevent problems," said Evans.
"Downloading extra, unnecessary software is more common with laptops than with desktops, giving IT staff continual migraines.
"Education of end-users regarding the implications of downloading materials is essential before IT managers will be happy to offer more colleagues laptops with advanced applications.
"Maintenance is a priority for our customers, and desktops are easier to maintain, control and monitor."
Security is another concern. "If MI5 employees can leave laptops containing secret information on public transport, you can imagine the problem for our customers," explained Evans. "Desktops are easier to monitor and less likely to be lost."
The desktop-versus-laptop debate boils down to control and security versus flexibility. "Many of our customers need flexibility, so they use laptops to complement their desktops," said Evans.
As the price gap between laptop and desktop narrows, customers are looking at the efficiencies portability can bring.
"The move from employees being tied to their desks to wireless internet connections all over the office has aided the sale of laptops, and they continue to give us higher margins than desktops," Evans explained.
While laptops are pretty well understood, education is necessary when it comes to handheld computers, and could more than repay the effort resellers put into it.
"We find that PDAs are still used as little more than glorified calendars," said Evans. "They could have real business value, but this isn't yet a reality.
"Resellers need to educate users about how handhelds can be used for business applications, such as stock control. This will bring resellers much higher revenues."
Computer 2000 (0870) 060 3344
Fujitsu Siemens (01344) 475 000
HP (020) 8332 3000
Intel (01793) 403 000
Interchange (01344) 861 861
ITP (0118) 902 7800
Palm (0118) 927 8700
Sharp (0161) 204 2333
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