The race to get the latest kit to market has run at a fast and furious pace ever since there was an IT industry worth speaking about. As one vendor breaks new ground, others have to follow suit or run the risk of being left behind. But does this process do anyone any favours, particularly in a market which has seen so many high-profile disasters?
Many manufacturers have a stated aim of being the first to market with new technology. Those involved in the race stand to gain little or nothing by being pipped at the post. With margins as tight as they are, the first few months of a product's life is the best time to make money - and this is as true for vendors as it is for dealers.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the notebook PC arena. Whether it is a six-speed CD-Rom drive, a 13.3in TFT screen or a 10-hour battery life, the first to market with a machine incorporating the latest technological developments stands to make considerable amounts of money while the competition plays catch-up. For some it is clearly a case of who dares wins and let the devil take the hindmost.
Let's face it, your latest all-singing, all-dancing notebook will look less than impressive if it hits the shelves after everyone else has moved on to something new. Next comes the process of heavily discounting the old kit, trying to get rid of it as quickly as possible, and then bringing out the latest model. Often vendors dump old products in favour of new ones, so they appear innovative, and users rush out to buy the latest machine to show off. And so it begins all over again.
For those with a monopoly on any aspect of the technology, this product cycle can be good news. Microsoft and Intel do very nicely out of it, and despite discontent in some quarters and the slow but steady advance of the network computer, the bulk of the industry is still dancing to the beat of the Wintel drum.
When Intel's Klamath architecture arrives all eyes will be on the PC vendors. And it surely won't be too long before the Pentium Pro becomes the entry level in the desktop arena. Similarly, even though Microsoft manages to upset many of its resellers on a regular basis - take the recent Select scheme, for example - very few will go as far as speaking out about it.
There is always pressure on manufacturers to include the latest software and components with their machines. But the biggest, best and newest machines are all well and good as long as they work. The race to market with a multimedia notebook caught one company with its pants down and the approach it took to solving its problems probably caused more headaches for the world's number one PC vendor than it cured.
Compaq rushed the LTE 5000 notebook through its testing period and out to market to meet the challenge of Dell, IBM and others. But almost as soon as people bought the portables, they were complaining that they did not work. There was no glaring omission from the LTE 5000's make up, rather a series of minor defects that conspired to bring about its downfall.
It took four Bios revisions and a lot of explaining, but the company finally got to grips with the problem and users eventually stopped complaining that their notebooks kept falling over.
In the rush to make sure it was not left behind, Compaq forgot the golden rule - make sure the product works before it goes on sale. The company now openly admits it tripped itself up on reliability and is anxious to set the record straight.
Reliability is a watchword at Compaq - once bitten, twice shy is its new attitude. But the company's portable product manager Pauline King feels that while it can be damaging to release products too soon, there is only so much testing a vendor can do.
'Once the notebook is out in the user environment, you start to find out how it copes with things. There are limits to what testing can tell you. At Compaq, there was a rush to get the product out and we got burnt as a result. Now we are focused on execution. After all, no one cares about the technology if it does not work,' says King.
Naturally, Compaq suffered as a result of the reliability problems its products were perceived to have, but its troubles had wider implications.
An unreliable notebook is an unreliable notebook, and for some users it does not matter which company made it, one bad experience with a portable may persuade them to to stick to desktop computing.
One mistake is bad enough, but the channel has a long memory. When Compaq released its latest Armada series of notebooks, the watchword among dealers, resellers and users alike was caution.
It is a difficult judgement for any manufacturer to make: where to draw the line under testing and to decide when the product is ready to roll.
But the opinion in the channel is that Compaq should have spent more time testing its own notebook and less time worrying about everyone else's.
Mike Norris, managing director of Computacenter, thinks vendors are not the only ones fuelling the race to develop new technology - users are also part of the equation. Perhaps they need to consider their purchases more carefully. Is a 2Gb hard disk drive necessary, and can business users tell the difference between the performance of a P100 chip and a P166 chip?
'I'd like to see a more reliability across all notebooks,' explains Norris. 'Things would be helped if vendors weren't obsessed with getting the latest technology inside their products. Users ought to consider buying a notebook that's been around for a few months - by then it will have had any initial problems taken care of.'
So, more testing and less haste should solve the problem. Sounds simple, but how likely is it to happen, particularly in the portable computing market? Imagine a world where companies did not care if their notebook was the latest and greatest, where fewer users bought something unreliable and where new products did not appear every few months.
Kinda dull, eh? Let's face it, a notebook computer says as much about its user as a car does. We all know that Daewoo makes reliable, well-built cars which are packed with extras and represent excellent value, but we would all rather be driving something with a little more kudos. Which is why, when a big name vendor lets out that it is about to bring out a new, improved notebook, people all over the country hang on until it comes out so they can get the latest model.
Mark Ray, product manager for Hertfordshire-based assembler Brent Computer Group thinks this method of selling product makes waves for the channel.
'If a vendor over-hypes a product before it is available, its resellers could have a problem shifting their existing stock. Users won't buy what they perceive to be old gear. It doesn't do anyone any favours.'
In many respects, the notebook computer has taken over from the mobile phone as the latest piece of gadgetry to be seen with. While your office-bound desktop computer was most likely bought as part of a large order and is the same as every other desktop PC in the building, the chances are that you had more input when it came to choosing your notebook. It stands to reason that being seen with your finger on the pulse of portable computing means a lot to some people.
Changing people's buying behaviour could be almost impossible, especially in a market that would not exist without extensive R&D. If the buying public expects there to be new generations of products that are smaller, cheaper and more powerful than the ones they replace, which manufacturer is going to dare to stand up and be different?
Two vendors which aim to be technology leaders are Toshiba and AST. Toshiba works as a development partner with Intel and is committed to bringing out a new notebook whenever Intel brings out a new chip suited to notebook use.
According to figures from Romtec, Toshiba has 49.7 per cent of the UK notebook market and it is not about to let that go. The company was first to market with zoom video, which is being incorporated by many other manufacturers, and has now started advertising its notebooks on television.
AST has made a loss in seven consecutive quarters, the latest being around $98.7 million. The company's new president Ian Diery has said that being first to market with new technology is part of his strategy to bring the company back to profitability - and with Samsung's increasing influence at AST, access to the latest technology is set to get easier and cheaper.
This is an example of one vendor that plainly cannot afford to miss out on the most profitable part of a product's lifecycle. AST's marketing director in the UK, Con Mallon, sees no future in the idea of slowing things down.
'You can't put the genie back in the bottle. Users expect their notebook to be nothing less than a replacement for their desktop. If you put out a substandard notebook it will only come back to bite you. Being first isn't enough, it's all about getting a well-priced and reliable product out at the right time,' he says.
Martin Clarke, sales and marketing director at specialist notebook reseller Lapland UK, agrees with Mallon. 'Luddite attitudes to technology have no place in IT. We're not forcefeeding people technology they don't want, we are providing solutions for real problems.'
Clarke adds: 'Where would software development be if everything was tested until all the bugs had been taken care of? We'd all still be using Dos.
We wouldn't even have heard of the graphical user interface.'
If resellers are to sell solutions and not just bits of technology, they must be able to select from a wide range of products. Not everyone needs a top-of-the-range device, so there has to be a lower-spec product to meet their needs.
Most vendors are reorganising their product lines into categories they hope will simplify the choice for the consumer and meet the needs of a broad spectrum of users. Similarly, a dealer that cares about winning repeat business will have to point out to potential buyers that their needs might be best met by something which does not necessarily come complete with all the bells and whistles.
Whether you think the public gets what it wants or simply what the channel feels it ought to have will probably depend on where you fit into the chain of supply and demand.
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