Conjure up before you the image of the average business ex-ecutive. Besides the blue corporate suit, the cellular phone and a copy of The Financial Times is surely a notebook computer. It is not simply a trophy representing business success, but a vital business tool.
And that tool is not just within the realm of the white-collar worker. Mobile computing is ubiquitous in most modern companies and professions, from taxi firms and courier operations to nurses, insurance firms and banks.
To a great degree, resellers can thank chip makers such as Intel for the surge toward mobile computing. They have worked hard to integrate even more functions onto chips, which while more powerful, use less system power. Notebooks with functional power of 10 hours are now a reality. As competition has grown in the chip market, product life cycles have narrowed from 18 months to a year or less. This has forced down prices, opening up the market for notebooks in the home as well as in business. The recession, from which resellers are now recovering, has also brought mobile computing to the fore. With rationalisation of staff in many corporates has come rationalisation of office space and the requirement to outlaw down time during the business day. Teleworking has become acceptable, and there is now no technological reason why employees should not keep in touch with their office whether they are on a train, in a car, at home or abroad.
Mobile voice networks are now geared for data, not only in the UK but across Europe. Mobile data services are set to generate revenues of $917 million in Europe and $1.3 billion in the US by the end of the century, according to London-based researchers Ovum.
Paging, radio and cellular applications are part of these figures. Even now, demand for cellular connections is outpacing demand for standard telephone lines in the business and consumer sectors. Approx-imately 100 million cellular phones worldwide shipped last year, according to Dataquest.
An example of the variety of applications which mobile data can facilitate comes from wireless data vendor Proxim, whose products are distributed in the UK by Logitek. Its Rangelan 2 products are used in health care for bedside computing; in warehousing where staff are moving around all day; and for point of sale in restaurants and airports. Mobile computing is not just about business executives on the move.
The easiest way to add value to a notebook sale is through PC cards. The PC card market has expanded exponentially since the technology's appearance in the early 1990s and according to analysts such as IDC more than 80 per cent of notebooks today are sold with PC card slots. Established players such as 3Com, Xircom and US Robotics/Megahertz continue to control a major share of sales, but many newer players have emerged with innovative alternatives to the brand names, most bearing attractive double-digit margins
European companies are making a strong play for the PC card market. Among them are Olicom, with its combined Go Card modem and Lan adaptor cards, distributed by Frontline and Azlan; and Ositech with its extensive Royal Family of combined modem, Ethernet and CD-Rom cards, distributed by PPTP. Farallon has developed the Etherwave, a PC card allowing mobile users to connect to an Ethernet network without needing a spare Ethernet drop. Distributed by Gomark, it is packaged with the Timbuktu kit allowing a PC to connect to a Mac 10Base-T network.
While distributors such as Azlan and Frontline can offer choice, for the value add it is worth looking at what firms such as Hugh Symons and PPTP can offer. PPTP, in particular, seems to revel in finding PC cards with outlandish names but high functionality, such as New Media's Toast n Jam, with 16-bit sound and Scsi connectivity.
Margins, such distributors say, remain high, in spite of the pervasiveness of PC card slots. It is still emphatically a technical sale, but insulating the end-user from complexity is a crucial consideration, particularly with regard to software such as remote access solutions. Resellers now have an opportunity to exploit a significant dormant market for such applications.
According to consultancy Schema, the UK's remote access market stands at a mere 100,000 users, while the real potential user base is closer to five million. That's because such applications aren't user-friendly enough. It's up to resellers to change that, particularly as new versions of remote access applications come into the channel. Both flavours of such applications - remote control and remote node - are being revamped by vendors eager to get channel players to spread their use.
Remote control applications allow a remote PC to take control of a PC at home or in the office, while remote node applications allow a remote PC to become a part of a corporate network, just as if it were attached directly to the network. Veteran remote control applications such as Sym-antec's PC Anywhere, Micro-com's Carbon Copy and Artisoft's Co-Session are being tooled up with friendlier user interfaces. Symantec's new version of PC Anywhere, for example, uses program wizards to set configuration and other options with a simple click on a quick start button.
Novell's new Netware Mobile gives users the same network view even when they are away from the office. It is a remote node application allowing disconnected or occasionally connected PCs access to Netware servers on the corporate network. The application also designates mobile-enabled files in users' directories and ensures file synchronisation between client and server.
Attachmate's latest version of its Remote Lan Node software, launched this month, combines both remote control and remote node features. This fully featured product covers every eventuality, offering built-in support for Dos, OS/2, Windows NT, Windows 95 and Microsoft's Windows 95 Remote Access software. Even an Internet dialler is thrown in.
Recently, a new protocol has been developed which supports mobile workers connecting in from remote locations. Dubbed the point-to-point tunnelling protocol, this Microsoft-backed initiative allows users to connect to their corporate network via the Internet, instead of over expensive long-distance connections. Its supporters, 3Com, US Robotics, Ascend Communic-ations and ECI Telematics, plan to integrate the protocol into various products by year end, and many will soon find their way into the channel.
As resellers get comfortable with the notebook-PC card scenario, they should also cast their eye at handheld devices like data-entry pads and increasingly sophisticated personal organisers from companies such as Psion and Apple.
These bring their own complexities with connectors, protocols and software, but as specialists in mobile computing readily admit, notebook PC card solutions are moving rapidly into the mainstream. The margin opportunity that exists now is unlikely to sustain itself for more than 18 months, if that. But the next challenge of multimedia mobile solutions over emerging transmission technologies such as low-orbit satellite or radio beckons. This one can only grow and grow.
Teleadapt caught the mobile computing wave early on. The reseller is now a leading source for mobile solutions, not only in the UK, but, through the judicious use of online advertising, also in Europe, the United States and even Australia. The company made its name by promising its customers that they could stay connected with their office wherever they happened to be in the world.
Teleadapt maintains a brisk trade in selling international telephone adaptor packs, but has expanded its expertise into various areas. Clever marketing ideas include a 'panic' rapid delivery service for mobile computer users whose batteries are failing while they are on the road or abroad.
Last year, Teleadapt also launched its Teleadapt Online Web site, which offers extensive information to mobile computer users on problems they may face on the road, such as connecting from a payphone or hotel.
What the value-added distributor PPTP doesn't know about PC cards could probably be written on the back of a postage stamp. In spite of early compatibility problems with PCMCIA technology, as it was then known, PPTP saw a significant market opportunity. It was one of the earliest members of the PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association), the body which oversees PC card standards and promotes the technology.
PPTP's gamble has clearly paid off since PC card slots are now a standard feature in today's notebook PCs. And the distributor argues that resellers sourcing product from PPTP can benefit from its long-term knowledge. The company devotes much time to scanning the world for innovative new PC card products, sourcing largely from Europe and North America.
Multifunction PC cards are a speciality, and there are products on offer with integrated Ethernet adaptor, modem and CD-Rom features. Specialist PC cards also include a Global Positioning System card offering location tracking through satellites, as well as wireless messaging PC cards offering connectivity over paging networks.
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