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10/3/2003
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Tech Guide: Beyond Notebooks: The New Mobility

Handhelds are making a serious run at notebook PCs to become the business traveler's platform of choice. But notebooks aren't going away soon.

Tech Guide iconThe golden era of PC-based mobile computing has given way to a more stratified marketplace with specialized and hybrid devices that aren't all things to mobile workers. Still, PC notebook sales remain strong and specially designed chips such as Intel's Centrino and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Athlon XP-M have helped spawn this success. Yet innovation in the mobile-computing marketplace is no longer dominated by PC manufacturers.

At least not according to mobile executives, who seem highly motivated to leave their notebooks behind in favor of a slew of smaller devices, including cellular phones and handhelds. The trend is similar to what was happening a decade ago, when laptops were just beginning to emerge from the 'luggable' niche. Pioneers in the field included Grid Systems Corp., which made rugged laptop computers that were, for the day, relatively small, and Poqet Computer Corp., which made a 1.5 pound 'palmtop' computer. Back then, going mobile meant lugging a laptop computer that might weigh less than 8 pounds and have a 10-inch screen. You carried it in your leather briefcase or maybe opted for a canvas one with a shoulder-strap. These notebooks were dramatically slower than the desktops of the day, cost thousands of dollars, and their battery life was pathetic, often barely more than an hour. Connecting from the road was perhaps the biggest challenge of all. It almost always meant plugging into a phone line, though there were rudimentary wireless data networks, crude and slow (we're talking kilobit transfer rates). It could take half an hour to download a file. Opening an E-mail with an attachment could take five minutes or more.

What a difference a decade makes. Today, most companies don't think twice about buying a notebook computer instead of a desktop, unless a worker is truly deskbound (the same is true for consumers). My own system includes a ho-hum basic feature set of a 2.4-GHz processor, 512 Mbytes of RAM, a 60 Gbyte hard drive, built-in Ethernet (I had to add Wi-Fi) and four USB ports, television in/out, a DVD/CD-R drive and a 15-inch display, purchased earlier this year at the clearance sale price of $1,500. Low-end notebooks now check in at $799 from major vendors such as Dell and Gateway. Little wonder that Gartner Dataquest projects that notebooks will make up 40% of the overall PC market in 2003.

Of course, popularity isn't the savviest criteria upon which to base a purchase decision for outfitting your mobile workers, especially if you're looking for units to last two to three years or more. Notebooks, even ultraportables, still weigh at least two pounds and certainly don't fit in your pocket (mine weighs roughly 6 pounds, and my back feels every ounce after a day of lugging it around at a conference). Every mobile worker at least fantasizes about leaving his or her notebook behind in favor of handheld computers, such as the Pocket PC, the Palm Tungsten, or the BlackBerry from Research in Motion Ltd. All of these platforms are gaining capabilities: they can open attachments, connect to corporate networks and even back-office applications, and they're gaining color screens, faster processors, and more features. While sales remain small in the overall market from unit sales and total dollars, can it be that a decade from now, the progeny of these devices will be as widespread as the notebooks of today?

The Magic 8-Ball that is the market suggests the answer is yes. First, there's the exclusivity factor. Like notebook computers and cell phones before them, connected handhelds like the BlackBerry have largely been the domain of top executives and highly paid professionals such as corporate lawyers and investment bankers. Connected handhelds remain pricey (though a $499 Palm Tungsten C isn't quite like paying $2,500 for a laptop), but prices are coming down even as these devices get more features. Most people happen to use these devices in combination with either a notebook or a desktop PC, but already for short trips that don't involve PowerPoint, many business travelers leave their notebooks at home. On other trips, the laptop might be just a hefty security blanket, used once or twice.

"A PDA isn't a panacea, it can't replace your laptop entirely," says John D. Halamka, M.D. and senior VP of IS at the CareGroup Healthcare System and CIO at the Harvard Clinical Research Institute. "But there are many functions where it works very well."

For instance, students at the medical school use their PDAs to read PDF files (except for BlackBerry users, since it doesn't support the format) and even to view Flash animations of about 10 different medical procedures. Halamka notes, too, that he was hiking in California when the Blaster virus hit, and was able to manage the situation via his BlackBerry.

Indeed, many companies are experimenting with an idea that was once seen as marketing overkill on the part of the old Compaq Computer: the handheld computer as mobile companion. When Compaq first trotted this out, saying that workers would need access to their files and E-mail while in meetings, it seemed unpersuasive, to be kind. Now people bring their handhelds with them everywhere, and with notebook computers showing up in more and more meeting rooms, it's clear that this idea's time has come.

There are still significant gaps between notebooks and handhelds. Even as handhelds become more powerful and capable, so will notebooks grow, keeping a performance gap. But even now, handhelds are closer to being complete business computing devices than one might think.

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