The great notebook swindle?

The latest IDC figures for the Middle East show up a couple of interesting issues.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  April 27, 2002

The latest IDC figures for the Middle East show up a couple of interesting issues. First of all, the market in the Middle East and Africa is still growing year-on-year by 20.4%, despite an overall decline in the EMEA region as a whole.

Hopefully these figures will go some way to convincing PC vendors that this market needs serious investment.

The second point, although it's not news, is the increasing popularity of the notebook. Throughout the EMEA region, notebook sales rose by 13% in Q1 2002. I don't have the figures for the Middle East, but from some of the individual figures from different vendors, it is safe to assume the Middle East market is growing by a lot more than 13%.

The question this raises, is where are all these notebook buyers coming from? While desktop replacement is a big sale for many businesses, the desktop market has not declined enough to account for all new notebook sales. It is with these new notebook users that the future of the market, and the longevity of the form factor lies.

The situation balances on how the notebook can match the benefits of the desktop, while keeping its own unique selling points, namely portability and size, and maybe overcoming some of the notebook's limitations, because I suspect that many of those buying notebooks now are being completely oversold.

On the size front, there is no doubt we want smaller computers. The growing popularity of LCD screens suggests that many of us are looking to save space in our homes and offices. Of course, it is not just notebooks that can meet reduced space requirements-small form factor PCs, flatscreens and other developments are also playing their part.

On the mobility front, while the road warrior will never settle for anything less than a top of the range, titanium alloy, hot swappable DVD/CD-RW/battery/kitchen sink status symbol, (purely for Powerpoint presentations), the massive advances in storage technology are providing options other than having to drag around five or six kilos of PC.

Many colleges in the region are starting to require students to buy notebooks. In the US however, there is growing concern about the physical strains pupils are put under to carry heavy books and sports kit, not including notebooks. Getting the pupil to buy the notebook relieves the school or college of the financial burden, but shifts it to parents, not necessarily a popular move, and certainly not an egalitarian one.

There is also the standard PC user, who needs little more than email, word processing, and Internet access. Many people are choosing the flexibility of a notebook, to enable them to work from home, but how many users ever really 'work' while travelling, the only time when mobility really counts? For both these groups, the limitations of a laptop are where the overselling bites-mainly the lack of robustness, lack of upgradability and vulnerability to theft.

Most SMBs cannot afford to lose a notebook PC for a week because it develops a fault, and cannot be easily repaired on site like a desktop can. Likewise, how many parents can afford to keep buying replacement laptops because their child has dropped their notebook? And with the speed at which CPUs and operating systems are upgrading, is either group of users going to be happy to hear that the notebook they bought for so much money less than twenty months before, is now hopelessly out of date?

For the channel it means the need to implement greater replacement stocks and faster service to cope with breakages. There is not a lot that can be done about theft, as much as manufacturers like to talk about security features, there is always a thief with an answer. Resellers could of course move into selling insurance policies against theft.

Robustness and upgrades, however, are where the manufacturers have to make improvements if the notebook market is to carry on growing. Without providing some protection against obsoleteness, and wear and tear, manufacturers can't expect the more cost conscious customers to keep buying notebooks. Especially when a $100, 1GB, USB thumb drive and a $800 desktop PC can provide the same functions as a $1500-plus notebook.

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