Almost every major hardware vendor you can think of has a stake in the mobile computing market. Not only are they in competition with each other, they often compete with IT outsiders such as games console vendors and consumer electronics specialists.
Software vendors, large and small, have also been busy developing mobile-friendly applications as well as a host of supporting technologies from virtual private networks (VPNs) to mail clients for personal digital assistants (PDAs). Add companies that generate specialist content and channels for the mobile user, and you have a complex and heady brew of competition.
All the major broadline distributors are in on the act as well, competing with a number of specialist mobile wholesalers. The mobile market is a rare example of retailers and value-added resellers (Vars) standing shoulder to shoulder, offering the same sorts of solution, albeit to different types of customers. Everyone wants a piece of it, so there is a lot of choice for the channel player.
It is also a market in which resellers can just as easily find themselves dealing with an old-school IT supplier which is trying to break away from office-based solutions, as a ground-breaking original thinker with a specialised approach.
The fruits of the relationship may well be determined by which category the supplier falls into. After all, you cannot expect your old headmaster to teach you how to breakdance.
Kevin Bulcock, product manager for wireless connectivity at distributor Ideal Hardware, believes the market offers a level of choice many resellers are ill-equipped to deal with. "Many resellers do not realise the possibilities of mobile and remote access solutions. The problem is not so much a lack of skills, but that they don't know what's going on," he says.
However, this is starting to change. Bulcock says a series of market briefings on VPNs and remote access that the distributor hosted at the recent Networks Telecom show were 'standing room only'. "There is a real hunger for information among resellers that they just don't have," he says.
Bulcock believes that he knows the root cause of this information shortfall. "There are too few vendors and distributors delivering that information. They tend to assume that knowledge already exists where it doesn't," he says, although he is quick to add that there are exceptions.
"TDK, with whom we work on GlobalPulse technology, is fully aware that there is often a misunderstanding of mobile computing within both resellers and corporates," he says. "It's seen as a black art, all too often. I have conversations on a daily basis where resellers end up saying: 'Wow, I didn't know you could do that'. They don't realise how simple things often are."
Knowing the right stuff
Bulcock's mission is to "get information into the hands of the people who can use it, by which I mean reseller sales people". To achieve this, Ideal has developed a series of sales training guides that are technology-based, not vendor-based, he says. There is also a specialist connectivity sales group at Ideal to take resellers through the first stages of involvement in mobile computing, through to rollouts.
There are those that would argue that the variety of mobile computing options means that only a broadline distributor can hope to reach all the bases. Gary Fowle, PC systems general manager at Computer 2000 (C2000), is among them.
"We're the only distributor in this country that stocks all of the top five notebook manufacturers: Toshiba, IBM, Compaq, Sony and Hewlett Packard. Obviously Dell is a top player too, but a little outside our remit," he says.
Fowle points out that a special part of the C2000 InTouch website is dedicated to each of the five vendors, so that resellers can easily compare pricing, specifications and availability.
He believes there are signs that the mobile computing market is maturing, becoming a better place for resellers and distributors. "Notebooks have been through a period of fluctuation in pricing and specs, but that has stabilised now. Vendors have realised they need to be nearer to desktops in price, but that there is always going to be some sort of differential."
Fowle says there has been some fallout of vendors within the notebook sector as a result of market turbulence, but claims that the market is at least growing. "Intel has always taken the view that the notebook is going to replace the desktop. That process is well under way, with all PC vendors experiencing a decline in desktop sales," he says. "Notebook turnover, and indeed the whole mobile sector, is growing for us as it is for everybody."
Fowle says no one can predict which of the various mobile standards and technologies is going to be around in three years' time. "No one knows what mobile computing is going to embrace. C2000 at least can cover a wide range. As in other markets, the company provides an umbrella to cover all angles."
Breaking into the market
Like security, storage and any other technology area, mobile computing has attracted a small community of specialised distributors with their own strong views on how to help resellers break into the market and make money.
One such company is Basingstoke-based Portable Add-ons. Andrew Edmeads, product development manager, says: "We know mobile technology back to front, and can sit down with a reseller and its customer, and work out what it wants to get out of its PDA and how to manage it."
Edmeads reveals that the company has recently announced distribution deals with Palm and Orange, which completes its end-to-end offering. He concedes that despite all the help he can give to resellers, certain market forces are always going to prevail that make some parts of the sector easier than others. "Handhelds are the hottest item in the mobile computing market at the moment, but most of the action is in retail. However, future growth is undoubtedly corporate, and that is already starting to happen. There are some bespoke PDA-based solutions coming through for corporates now," he says.
Edmeads identifies a key problem in selling mobile solutions at enterprise level. "Corporates all expect a solution to do everything for them. They expect, for example, that a PDA will be able to do everything that a notebook can do. It is necessary for resellers to sit down with customers and identify exactly what the solution can do. We can, to an extent, help resellers with that," he says.
As expected, the mobile computing market has started to generate inventive approaches to the supply chain. Some of these are light years away from the two-tier channel method.
BrainDock.com is a digital distributor of software for the mobile technology sector, and a good example of a novel approach to the mobile computing channel.BrainDock's business model involves software publishers, mainly in the PDA sector, registering with the company to distribute their products and setting up their own websites on the BrainDock server. A Psion customer, for example, can download software for its handheld but without knowing that its transaction is taking place on the BrainDock site.
Jonathan Glaser, chief executive of BrainDock, says: "We enable publishers of software to go virtually direct to the consumer. It's certainly a lot easier for users to download from our site than it is to go and buy over the counter."
Glaser claims that his company's business model is part of the way to application service provision (ASP), and it is getting ever closer. "Software is increasingly a service. New and innovative mobile software solutions are going to be increasingly service and ASP-oriented," he says.
But there are no signs that the retail sector is ending its love affair with mobile computing. High street giant Dixons Group has reported a surge in annual profit driven, it says, by strong demand for mobile phones. The company claims booming mobile sales, particularly in the pre-pay market, helped boost its turnover by 23 per cent from £3.2bn to £3.9bn, and its profit by 11 per cent from £239m to £264m in the year ending 29 April.
However, the future of the mobile market may lie elsewhere, if not with flexible and global models such as BrainDock's, then with other models less tied to bricks and mortar. After all, what is price mobility if it is sold through static channels? Distributors and resellers of mobile solutions will need to find ways of being as flexible and accessible as the products they sell.
- Most hardware and software vendors are active in the mobile technology market. Resellers would be wise to distinguish specialists from cowboys and also-rans.
- Too many resellers, and their corporate customers, seem to be ignorant of what mobile technology can really achieve for them.
- With sales of notebooks on the increase as desktop sales dive, in some respects mobile technology is fast becoming the norm.
- The brave new world of mobile computing is generating some even braver new channel approaches. The challenge is for resellers to become as flexible as the technology they sell.
- The PDA market is becoming corporate as well as retail and consumer-led. VARs will play a key role in making this happen.
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