The battle for space in the executive briefcase will heat up during 1999 as more and more palmsized gadgets try to bump aside the traditional laptop.
The market for these smaller smart devices will grow by 45 per cent next year to 10.7 million units, according to market research group IDC. And 3Com's Palm devices will see their chunk of the handheld market go up to 41.4 per cent from 32 per cent this year.
Other areas will also see growth. IDC predicts growth for handhelds running Microsoft Windows CE, but points out that vendors must pass several hurdles including educating the market and managing user expectations. Vendors also need to provide PC-style service and support programmes and align device price points so they do not collide with low cost notebooks.
Notebook vendors are not giving up the space to device makers. They are preparing a new crop of notebooks with brighter screens, larger keyboards and synchronisation software, promising to be the most usable to date.
'Thin and Light' - weighing less than five pounds - is one of the phrases the laptop makers will promote next year. For instance, Gateway's Solo 3100XL weighs 4.9 pounds with its internal DVD-Rom drive or 4.4 pounds with its weight-saver module.
At the recent Comdex show IBM demonstrated its latest notebooks and desktops including new versions of its lightweight Thinkpad 560 and 600 notebooks, the 560Z and 600E. Both are available with 300MHz Pentium II processors. Sony and Sharp showed their three pound subnotebooks - Sony's VAIO 505 Superslim and Sharp's Actius A1000 Ultralight.
Another trend is the increased number of rugged notebooks. Panasonic Personal Computer demonstrated its new Toughbook. The model 45 features a magnesium alloy LCD case, fibre glass reinforced lower case and gel-mounted hard drive. The model 71 goes a step further with magnesium alloy cabinet and handle and moisture resistant keyboard.
Compaq and Sony also demonstrated models with magnesium alloy casing. The casing is said to dissipate heat better than plastic.
Notebooks next year are expected to have Intel's latest version of the Celeron processor inside. Bob Jecmen, vice president and general manager of Intel's mobile and handheld products group, acknowledged the company is developing mobile Celeron processors, along with a low cost chip set, which it expects will help OEMs expand the subnotebook market to new users.
"We recognize there is a range of users, usage models and budgets out there," he said. While 15 to 20 per cent of the PC market is made up of notebooks today, Jecmen said, he'd like to see that increase to 30 per cent in the near future.
Palm currently dominates the personal digital assistant (PDA) space but analysts believe that Windows CE will gain ground and Martin Reynolds, vice president at Dataquest, was not impressed with 3Com's Palm division, saying: "Nothing exciting is coming from the Palm people. It's still a single platform device."
Palm seems to have delayed the next version of the Palmpilot from December to the new year. Industry sources said the device, codenamed Razor, will be substantially slimmer than the existing Palm III at around one-third of an inch thick, with a lithium-ion battery that recharges through its holder or cradle.
It will reportedly include a new and faster Motorola EZ Dragonball processor, an optional keyboard and access to online information services, but not a built-in Web browser. But the devices are expected to support wireless technology, an upgraded operating system and a revamped docking station, plus increased memory (see Newswire 25 November).
A second version, codenamed Bali, will include a colour display.
"We're clearly number one. But I don't think that we get credit for the Palm operating system," said Janice Roberts, acting general manager of Palm Computing.
The company plans to hire more engineers and expand the operating system into a range of new mobile information appliances, Roberts explained. The company also plans to discuss support for wireless connectivity, including Bluetooth technology, which will allow the Palmpilot to share data with a cellular phone or use the phone as a wireless modem.
Palm Computing has licensed the operating system to several companies including IBM, Symbol Technologies and Qualcomm.
IDC predicts that the market for handheld computer devices will experience a compound annual growth rate 44.8 per cent for 1997-2001.
"IDC thinks the personal companion segment will be the volume growth generator due to the low cost for these devices and the fact that users are looking for small, pocket sized devices that synchronise to their desktop or notebook PC," said Diane Hwany, an IDC analyst.
She added that "we see these devices as extensions to the desktop or notebook PC".
Windows CE computers come in a variety of sizes or shapes. The smallest fit in a shirt pocket and are easily operated with the touch of a finger, the swipe of a stylus pen or by voice command.
For integration, Extended Systems is one company that will add synchronisation support for Palm operating system devices. The new release of its Enterprise Harmony 98, to be delivered by the end of the year, will allow customers to synchronise between both Windows CE and Palm devices.
Palmsized PCs start at about $299 and suppliers include Casio, Everex Systems, Philips Mobile Computing Group and Uniden. Packard Bell NEC has unveiled its plans for CE products and a sub-$1,000 notebook while CompUSA said it will take a shot at the notebook market with its own systems starting in early 1999.
CompUSA said it will target small businesses with its notebooks priced from $1,200 to $2,500.
NEC will roll out two devices in the first quarter priced between $799 and $999 and running Jupiter, the latest version of CE.
As the number of suppliers in this space burgeons, demand for the systems is branching out from the classic gadget seekers to more mainstream audiences. NEC, for example, has seen demand from corporations that want to outfit remote salesforces with CE devices.
Targeting this new market, Hewlett Packard has rolled out its slimmed down Windows CE device, the Jornada 820. It weighs 2.5 pounds, is priced under $999, and runs up to 10 hours before the battery needs recharging.
And Vadem demonstrated its Clio handheld PC, which weighs three pounds with a footprint of 8.5 x 11 inches. It also provides a nearly normal size keyboard with a battery life of 12 hours.
The Windows CE portion of this solution includes some useful tools. Those on the road can use the Pocket Outlook email client to check POP3 or Imap accounts or Internet Explorer to browse Web pages. The Clio device includes a built-in 33.6Kbps modem.
"With mobile information appliances one size does not fit all," said Dan Epel, vice president of marketing at Vadem.
But there are still obstacles. Windows CE, after several revisions, is still difficult to use. The first CE devices were about half the size of the Jupiter class with keyboards too small for even hunt-and-peck typing. The second generation was an obvious imitation of the Palmpilot without the Pilot's ease of use.
Analysts agreed the next generation of Jupiter devices, which should arrive within a year, are almost sure to offer better design and even lower prices.
Other less expensive devices are in US stores this Christmas hoping to capture some attention before Jupiter arrives. Olivetti Office's Royal Consumer Business Products division is shipping a new line of hi-tech PDAs, called DaVinci, for $99, for instance.
Also just hitting the market are dedicated devices that allow owners to send and retrieve their email from any telephone.
A US start-up, Pocketscience, has developed the technology while Japanese consumer giants Sharp Electronics and JVC have manufactured the devices that are retailing for around $100.
With such developments coming thick and fast, the mobile communications and computing market is set to explode over the coming year. It remains to be seen whether the giants like CE will win out, or whether the laurels will go to the smaller innovators.
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