The market for high-end notebooks in the UK is unusual in at least one respect - because it is not dominated by Toshiba. The Japanese giant may have an impressive stranglehold on the overall notebook market - with 42 per cent of the indirect channel. But when it comes to premium product going into corporate offices, the market is more crowded and the picture more confusing.
The premium notebook market, defined by analyst firm Dataquest as products which appeal to advanced users that seek to gain a business advantage and are prepared to pay for it, is a plum one for both manufacturers and resellers. The reason is twofold. The market is growing steadily and it is a high-margin business, at least compared with the cutthroat operations further down.
According to Dataquest analyst Chris Jones, the premium notebook market is dominated by the big four of IBM in first place, Toshiba second, Dell third and Compaq fourth. Texas Instruments, AST and Apple are also jockeying for position.
But the figures are not clear because analysts do not record separate sales of high-end notebooks, and there are problems in comparing different vendors' product ranges. Manufacturers that only sell high-end notebooks are excluded by lack of volume from the overall figures.
But one thing is certain, corporates are more likely to buy branded notebooks than are other sectors of the market. Jones says that this looks set to continue.
The market for these premium notebooks represents about 45 per cent by value of the total notebook market, and that figure is increasing.
It also fluctuates during the year, with increased sales towards the end of the financial year in March and April.
'The premium market is where the real money is for manufacturers,' says Jones, 'because cost is not really a consideration for premium users.' He says that as prices fall, the corporate users are more likely to continue to pay the same price for product, but to demand more features, rather than trying to cut corners.
So the sales of the big-name brands are set to increase further at the expense of the less-well-known brands in the premium market.
Jones says the market for low-end notebooks has also increased, and there is evidence that some of these increased low-end sales may have filtered into corporates. Despite this, premium notebooks will continue to be a growth area for the largest suppliers.
Michael Kianfar, MD of corporate reseller Systems International, sells premium products from IBM, Toshiba and Compaq. He believes the IBM Think Pad has the edge when it comes to sales. 'It's been a successful product for us,' he says, 'particularly with financial services companies.' But Kianfar is not sure why the Think Pad has done so well.
'Many large customers that have previously used other vendors have moved across to IBM,' he says. 'But I can't put my finger on what features it has that have caused the demand.' As far as features and pricing are concerned, there is little to choose between products from the three leading manufacturers, he says, but IBM has succeeded by paying more attention to detail than its rivals.
'The Think Pad is a well-designed product,' says Kianfar, 'and IBM has paid attention to the accessories which matter to corporates.' Corporates may be prepared to pay u2,500-plus for a notebook, but they want the thing to look nice. The Think Pad has an attractive ergonomic form and an equally attractive leather carrying case. Small things can mean a lot.
IBM has had some setbacks, particularly the 701 model which Kianfar says did not kick-off as he thought it would. The current model, 560, is the one that has really boosted sales, and he says the only drawback is how it works with its docking station. 'The Compaq docking station is easier to use,' he says. 'The Think Pad has been designed as more of a standalone product.'
The key to the corporate sale is understanding how the corporate works.
Kianfar says the high-performance notebook is often viewed as an executive toy when it is first delivered, but the increasingly powerful features mean it soon becomes indispensable and can end up replacing the desktop.
But one thing corporates do not want is product that is unbranded and anonymous.
'The price delta between the major vendors is peanuts,' he says. 'Some clone vendors have come out with notebooks that have the same level of features, and that are significantly cheaper, but there is no interest in them. Ultimately, there is a massive difference between a u2,500 notebook and one that costs u1,500.'
That difference is what separates the corporate market from that of small businesses or home users. With the corporates it seems branding is everything. According to figures from Romtec for the whole of the indirect notebook market, Toshiba leads with 42 per cent (37 per cent of the total direct and indirect market) followed by Compaq with 16 per cent of indirect sales, IBM with 14 per cent and AST and Apple with five per cent. Direct seller Dell has four per cent of the total direct and indirect market and, like IBM, its sales are skewed towards high-end business.
But there is some confusion over the figures, according to Martin Clarke, sales director at specialist notebook reseller Lapland. He says Toshiba outsells IBM because it has more models which can be classed as high-end.
He believes Panasonic is probably the second biggest seller when it comes to management notebooks, with its entire product range falling into this sector, but it does not show up on the Romtec top 10 of notebook manufacturers.
Clarke says: 'The high-end notebook market is unusual because no one vendor really dominates. On the desktop, Compaq dominates, but when it comes to high-end notebooks corporates are not going to be dictated to by a single manufacturer. The corporate market makes up its own mind.'
He says all the figures for market share are skewed in favour of the volume merchants and do not give a true picture of what corporates are really buying for their managers.
Toshiba notebook product manager Chris Miller says it does the bulk of its business with corporates, but admits IBM has taken the lead in the high-end market on features. 'Big Blue concentrates purely on the technology,' he says. 'But we have a wider product set.'
Miller says the real difference between IBM and Toshiba is that Toshiba sells many more low-end systems than IBM. 'We specialise in 1,000-unit roll-outs,' he says.
About 70 per cent of Toshiba's total sales are the low-end Satellite notebooks (priced from u1,295) and the mid-range Satellite Pro (u2,195).
Only 30 per cent of its sales are of the high-end Tecra, which is priced from u2,695 to u4,995. Despite this, Miller says the high-end notebook market is very important to Toshiba.
'It's a technology showcase for us,' he says. 'The notebook market is shifting upwards, and the average value of the notebooks that we are selling has risen in the past few months.'
High-end notebooks also provide a useful 'showroom' for manufacturers.
Once a corporate has bought a small number of high-end systems, says Miller, it is more likely to use the manufacturer again for larger roll-outs of cheaper machines, a category where Toshiba clearly has the advantage.
Although it does not differentiate between products within its channel, Toshiba resellers have access to all its products, both high-end and low-end. It is the low to mid-range where Toshiba will continue to dominate.
Also trying to boost high-end sales into corporates is AST, which has five per cent overall market share. Marketing manager Con Mallon says a combination of growth and high margin make high-end notebook business a plum market for all manufacturers. AST is competing, says Mallon, by trying to match the market leaders on features with its Ascentia P model, and by undercutting rivals on price by u500 to u1,000.
'There is an element of corporates buying purely on features,' says Mallon.
'But they have to keep an eye on the budget as well.' He says corporates will realise they can get comparable featured notebooks cheaper than they do at present, and there is a role for the reseller to bring the widest possible product options to the corporates' attention.
In terms of features, users expect premium notebooks to be able to perform in the same way as desktops. High-end notebooks come with 133MHz Pentium processors and 2Gb hard drives. They also, says Mallon, come to market quicker. 'Users used to have to wait a year after a desktop PC came out to get a comparable notebook version. That time period has been cut to three months.'
In the future, manufacturers may well simultaneously launch high-performance desktop and notebook PCs.
John Patterson, MD of notebook manufacturer Dolch, which specialises in industrial and scientific notebooks, says major players - like Toshiba and Compaq - have dropped out of supplying the highest end systems because the volumes are not there for them.
Dolch supplies a range of custom-built notebooks with up to 10 expansion slots and ruggedised covers. These are not executive toys, but industrial machines whose main users are network analysers and scientific and engineering users.
'All the branded vendors have disappeared from these niche markets in the past few years,' says Patterson. 'They've focused on less specialised business.' At the same time, he says the branded vendors stopped using high-end specialist Vars and started to put more products through mainstream resellers. About half of Dolch's sales are direct to corporates and the other half are to OEMs, which use the notebooks as a platform to add software on to and then resell.
Patterson says network testing and analysing accounts for half of the total systems sold. But multimedia and video conferencing are both shrinking markets for specialist systems.
Patterson says that sales of the highest end notebooks are too small to bother the volume PC companies, but provides good business for a manufacturer of Dolch's size (turnover of about u5 million).
Whatever happens, the lucrative market for corporate PCs is set to develop, with the rise of the mobile or home working and the increasing sophistication of the products on offer, from all of the major vendors. Products like the Compaq LTE 5000 (Compaq's notebook as desktop replacement offering) now come with a six-speed CD-Rom drive, 12.1in TFT screen and the ability to work with a docking station.
But despite all the technological advances, the lack of a clear distinction between all the major notebook vendors means no definite winner has emerged in the battle for the high-ground of corporate notebook market share.
The high-market share of Panasonic, which is not a player in the volume market, drives this point home.
Panasonic product manager Richard Walters claims it has sales of upwards of 30 per cent of the high-end multimedia notebook market, but says the lack of effective analysis means it is difficult to verify the figures, or get a more accurate market share. For Walters, the essential shape of the market - with no one clearly dominant - is not going to change, but will become more affordable.
'Pricing will come down,' says Walters. 'The major cost of the notebook is the LCD panel and the prices of these are dropping.' The reason, he claims, is that improved manufacturing techniques - Panasonic manufacturers its own - mean that the yield rate is higher, at over 90 per cent, and there is less waste, the cost of which has to be recouped from the consumer.
As prices fall, so the high-end notebook market will increase. But the leading manufacturers will always stay one step ahead.
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