Security and support drive notebook sales

Providing support to the fast-growing population of notebook users is becoming crucial to the marketing strategy of hardware vendors in the Middle East region.

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By  Peter Branton Published  April 10, 2005

Introduction|~||~||~|There was a time when notebooks were seen as an expensive convenience. Every year, a few thousand notebooks were sold — to the jet-setting, top executives of companies. Operating in a limited market, the vendors also saw notebooks as an adjunct to their desktop business. So they provided the same kind of applications and support services as they did for their desktop products. But all this has changed in the last few years. The notebook market in the Middle East is booming now. In the last quarter of 2004, for instance, notebook sales jumped by over 41.6% in the Middle East region, reports IDC. In 2003, close to 300,000 notebooks were sold, which jumped to 400,000 the next year. The market is predicted to grow in healthy double-digit percentage figures for the next few years too. With such a rapidly expanding base of notebook users, vendors can no longer ignore the specific requirements of mobile computing devices. Mobile computing is throwing up a need to provide anytime, anywhere support and security. A notebook could be hacked into, or the hard disk could crash, or worse, it could be stolen. All this is double-trouble for any organisation because the loss of a notebook could mean valuable data loss. With a desktop, such instances would occur within the confines of a corporate office — where support infrastructure is easily available. But with notebooks, the organisation is almost helpless. As a result, the onus of supporting, protecting and securing the notebook is now becoming a responsibility of the vendor. To address this concern, vendors have started drawing up a new framework of features and support services for the notebook user. Many are, in fact, seeing this as an opportunity to garner market share, where price has long been the only differentiator between brands. Acer, for instance, has made a strong comeback in the PC market, riding on the success of its notebook sales. Apart from aggressive pricing, the company used strong after-sales support as a powerful ploy to attract customers for its notebooks. In 2003, the company launched an innovative service for customers who encountered a problem with their notebook. Under the ‘Collect, Repair and Return’ programme, the customer had to just call up an Acer call centre, and give his or her address. An Acer representative would reach the customer premises, take the machine to the service centre for fixing the problem, and then deliver it back to the customer. “Our most recent surveys have shown that 90% of the customers were ‘very satisfied’ with the value-added support we provided. The company ranks as one of the top three desktop and notebook suppliers in the whole of the Middle East region now,” says Graham Braum, business development manager for notebooks, Acer Middle East. Other vendors such as Dell, HP, Toshiba and Fujitsu Siemens Computers (FSC) are also rapidly offering a range of services and features to notebook users in an attempt to catalyse faster market growth and increased market share. According to IDC figures for the last quarter of 2004, HP had the highest share in the Middle East with 32.4%. Acer was second with 13.8%, then came Dell with 11% while Toshiba and IBM followed with 9.5% and 8.4% respectively. In such a close contest, falling short on customer support could prove disastrous for these vendors — so all of them have launched a slew of initiatives to improve support and service levels. While global support on a 24x7 basis is the goal, vendors are setting up an extensive network of service centres and help-desks that provide support in multiple languages. Better physical security systems, mechanisms for server authentication, data encryption, sophisticated access tools like smart cards and new technologies like user-level biometrics are being introduced to make the notebook experience as secure, trouble-free and convenient as possible. “As the mobility market matures, customers are realising the importance of various levels of security features,” says Junaid Rahman, workstation & Thinkline Manager at HP Middle East. ||**||Security|~||~||~|When it comes to solving the security conundrum facing notebook security, physical security is the easiest to deal with — lock the notebook, or put some kind of an alarm system. Cable locks, such as the Kensington Lock, can secure the notebook to a fixed structure in the room. There are motion sensors, which go off when the machine is moved beyond a defined radius. Dell also offers what it calls, ‘asset tags’, which can only be removed by applying pressure of more than 400 pounds. And even if these tags are removed, a ‘stolen’ sign is displayed, marking the machine ineffective for reselling. It is at the system level that vendors have introduced some interesting concepts for the user. Smart cards, fingerprint recognition, authentication chips implemented at the hardware level are all worth taking a look at. Smart cards have been around for a couple of years, but as Andrew Nicholson, product manager for emerging markets at Dell, says: “Companies are beginning to realise the benefits only now.” These smart cards, smaller than the size of a credit card, can be inserted into a slot in the notebook, and require a password to enable access into the system. Dell has taken the concept forward, and implemented smart cards at the software level also, through its OtaniumSuite Pro, so there is double password authentication. The feature also helps in protecting data by providing file encryption. One version of the software even provides e-mail and digital signature protection. The interesting aspect of a smart card is that it carries far more memory capacity than a traditional magnetic strip card. So the smart card can also be used as a credit card, debit card or personal ID. “Smart cards can be used in notebooks and desktops, so the whole of the corporation is using it. In some cases, they are implementing the door access system along with this smart card system,” says Nicholson. Asked about the cost of implementation, he refers to published studies that estimate the cost of this feature at about US$100 per system. Vendors like Acer and FSC have also been offering biometric fingerprint readers. “Our survey, however, suggested that users preferred smart cards to biometrics fingerprint reader. The temperature in this region means sweaty palms. This may have given some problem to the users,” says Acer’s Braum. Today, features that are de rigueur for system-level protection include BIOS passwords and hard disk encryption at BIOS level which makes it difficult to access the hard disk information. In the days to come, when the technology improves and the cost of implementation also comes down, touch security such as finger printing or retina scanning could be a big trend. Another approach that may grow in popularity is USB keys, which are simpler to use than smart cards. At the network level, some new features are being offered, either at an additional cost, or they are being built into the high-end notebooks. Both HP and Dell have implemented a security chip on the motherboard, which they call the Trusted Platform Module (TPM). Only if the TPM is authenticated will a user be allowed network access. The technology also enables file encryption, so the files are ‘locked’ to a particular system. A key challenge emerging at the network level is the security issue around wireless connectivity. Hacking into corporate databases and networks becomes easier through a notebook on a public wireless network accessing a corporate VPN. So wireless security protocols such as WPA and CCX must be implemented on such notebooks. These protocols require authentication of every user attempting to access the wireless network. Of course, if all of this fails to protect your notebook, just pick up the phone and call the vendor’s helpdesk. If the notebook is stolen, and you have implemented a program like Computrace on it, then just give the helpdesk person the serial number of the notebook. They will take over your worries from there on. As soon as the notebook is on the internet, the Computrace control centre gets a message about the IP address and its physical location. The authorities can be notified accordingly. ||**||Helpdesks|~||~||~|Until recently, helpdesks had been set up to provide instant troubleshooting and technical support, but the service is getting extended along two directions now. Local support, which was made available 24X7, is being extended into a region-wide support, and eventually global support. FSC, for instance, set up its helpdesk operations locally, in all Gulf countries. “Speed of support has to be increased to meet the needs and expectations of customers… FSC also has plans to implement a global helpdesk at a corporate level,” says Susanne Lewitski, product marketing manager at FSC. HP already has a global help desk with 24X7 availability. “As the market is moving towards second and third-time buyers, good experience in support is very important,” says Rahman. Local language support is just as important, so vendors like Acer and Dell provide helpdesk support in English and Arabic in the Middle East. The other direction in which helpdesks are improving customer support experience is by enabling new services. Companies are launching new support services and are using the helpdesk as the customer interface. HP even has a four-hour response time ‘care pack’ for resolving a system break down. If the user buys this service, the notebook is guaranteed a fix in four hours. Vendors have to keep coming up with new solutions fast because the market for notebooks is growing very fast; users’ needs are evolving rapidly; and security issues are getting more challenging. What the hardware vendors are prescribing today is not a single, comprehensive solution but a series of steps – from the mundane like carrying Kensington locks and remembering passwords, to technologically sophisticated solutions such as TPM, smartcards and biometrics. But the 24x7 support has arrived for the notebook user, and overall quality of support has become an important factor in acquiring and retaining customers. As Lewitski says: “It helps us increase our competency, which ultimately gives us the edge over our competitors.” ||**||

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