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Rugged & RF-Ready

WIRELESS-ENABLED LAPTOPS are regarded widely by business executives as critical tools. A recent survey of small businesses attests to this trend. In its poll of nearly 1,500 small businesses, the American Small Business Travelers Alliance (ASBTA) found owners believe wireless technology is essential to their businesses. Most (80 percent) rely on wireless devices to stay connected to their businesses. More than half (55 percent) rely on a wireless laptop to check e-mails, and 66 percent believe a wireless laptop or PDA allows them to be more productive while out of the office.

Wireless-enabled laptops can be outfitted with Wi-Fi technology, but its lack of ubiquity has many users turning to cellular, which has greater coverage if not Wi-Fis superior bandwidth. Third-generation cellular networks will go a ways to closing the gap; EV-DO Rev. A networks, for example, promise download speeds of 450kbps to 850kbps with bursts up to 3.1mbps and average upload speeds to 300kpbs to 400kbps with bursts up to 1.8mbps. Sprint Nextel Corp., for example, so far has announced four external modems and a deal with SONY for an embedded laptop modem compatible with the operators new Rev. A network.

As noted, cellular modems for laptops come in two form-factors: PC cards and embedded modems. While PC cards will continue to be sold on an aftermarket basis for some time, the real future of the market lies with embedded modems, which will make up nearly 17 percent of the total $1 billion market this year, according to analysts at ABI Research, who expect that proportion to increase steadily over time. The research firm forecasts the combined market for card-based and embedded modems will reach nearly $3 billion in 2010.

The embedded modem movement is likely to get a boost by the Sept. 27 announcement by Intel Corp. and Nokia that they will partner to offer embedded cellular modems in portable computers. The deal not only will accelerate the market, but it portends a next step, and that is that Intel will seek to include WiMAX and, eventually, multiple connectivity options in portable computers, says ABI Research senior analyst Philip Solis.

Intel is not alone in this pursuit, however. The industry is quickly standardizing on the mini-PCI form factor, which allows EV-DO and 802.11 radios to coexist in the same space only one radio used to take up, says Ron Smith, an executive with Hewlett-Packard Co., speaking at a roundtable at the fall CTIA Wireless IT + Entertainment event. That means that well see price rationalization on the device and service side as volumes ramp.

Notwithstanding the recent spotlight cast on the embedded modems, Panasonic Corp. has been in the wireless-enabled laptop business for a decade. The company, which sells exclusively through solutions integrators, has a line of laptops that are purpose-built for the mobile workforce. Two new models, the CF-19 and CF-30 Toughbooks, will be available this month. Whats special about these new entries, says Sheila ONeil, senior director of channel sales for Panasonic, is that they are wireless-ready, meaning the wireless module can be added after the sale a handy feature if the customer hasnt settled on their mobile carrier. This also counters a traditional selling point for modem cards.

ONeil is quick to point out that the embedded modems offer a number of advantages over modem cards, the foremost of which is reliability. A PC card can damage the unit if it is plugged in and the unit is dropped, she says. While dropping the laptop is not recommended, the realities of the mobile workforce are that notebook PCs are dropped and spilled on and damaged even in the most benign of work environments. Panasonics Toughbooks are designed with that in mind, she says, and come in rugged, semi-rugged and business rugged models to meet the requirements of varying user groups from field forces to business travelers (see a few of these models below story).

Better reception is another selling point for the embedded modems, says ONeil. When you think about where the modem card is, your area of reception is blocked, she says. In contrast, Panasonic places the antennas at the top of the screen (see diagram below). Because Panasonic manufactures its own gear, it has an R&D department constantly working on making the modems function better, she says.

Other notebook vendors would agree. Embedding EV-DO into a notebook allows more ease of use and more reliability no more breaking the antenna, says HPs Smith. HP sells both embedded and nonembedded modems, and expects 15 percent to 20 percent attachment rates for embedded cellular radios over the long term.

Anatomy of a Laptop With Embedded Radio

Click to Enlarge

Panasonic also is expecting increased interest. While it has facilitated wireless service activation for its dealers on a one-off basis for the past three years, this fall the company implemented a Wireless Partner Program that makes the purchasing and activation process easier for its dealers by providing one point of contact for gear and service sales. To do this, Panasonic has become a master agent for several mobile operators, including Sprint Nextel Corp., Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless and Alltel Wireless. It also has contracted with master agency StarMobile to handle activation, provisioning and commission management for its dealers in the program.

The program includes three levels platinum, gold and silver that have varying commission levels. Platinum dealers must sell 500 activations per month and get 100 percent commission of the activation, gold dealers must sell 250 activations per month and receive 70 percent commission, and silver dealers must sell 75 activations per month and get 30 percent commission. The levels are based on average sales volumes, which are reviewed every six months, so dealers can move up to a higher tier as their sales increase, says ONeil.

Sales of the laptops are compensated at 10 percent, she adds, noting that WPP dealers also have to be part of Panasonics TP3 dealer program to sell its gear, which is distributed through Tech Data Corp., Ingram Micro Inc. and Synnex Corp. There are more than 250 resellers in the TP3 program. New dealers are expected to reach a minimum of $500,000 in annual laptop sales. ONeil says the company understands that dealers have to work up to that level and is looking for agents with a willingness to grow sales and not just respond to bids. The company provides sales training and lead-generation assistance. Panasonic does, however, expect its dealer partners to complete the solution by bringing in technical expertise end users require as it concerns the PCs operating system and applications. One of the reasons we partner with IT distributors is because they do that, she says.

Panasonic also has developed partnerships with applications software developers for its dealers to tap to assist with customer-specific requirements. Examples include Padcom/Net Motion, Ecutel, Broadbeam and Fortress.

Tara Seals contributed to this article.


From Rugged to Semi-Rugged

Panasonic Toughbook CF-19
Available this month, the fully rugged CF-19 is a convertible tablet PC encased in a waterresistant, magnesium alloy case. It features a seven-hour battery life, shock-mounted removable hard drive, daylight-legible screen, and is wireless-ready.
Ideal User:
Police, fire and emergency medical professionals, members of the armed forces, field service technicians and mobile workers
MSRP: $4,199

Panasonic Toughbook CF-30
Available this month, the fully rugged CF-30 features a full magnesium alloy, water-resistant case, bright daylight-readable display, eight-hour battery life and is wireless-ready.
Ideal User: Police, fire and emergency medical professionals, members of the armed forces, field service technicians and mobile workers
MSRP: $4,699

Panasonic Toughbook CF-74 The semi-rugged CF-74 includes a magnesium alloy case, integrated handle, spill-resistant keyboard and touchpad, daylightreadable screen and eight-hour battery life. It also includes a biometric fingerprint scanner, security chip and integrated wireless modem.
Ideal User: Police, fire and emergency medical professionals, members of the armed forces, field service technicians and mobile workers
MSRP: $3,333
From Semi-Rugged to Business Rugged

Panasonic Toughbook CF-Y5 Weighing just 3.4 pounds, the CF-Y5 is a semi-rugged thinand- light laptop. It has a large 14.1″ display, built-in optical combo drive, a full magnesium alloy case, a shock-mounted hard drive and built-in wireless radio.
Ideal User: Mobile professionals
MSRP: $2,199

Panasonic Toughbook CF-T5 Weighing little more than three pounds, the semi-rugged thinand- light CF-T5 features a touchscreen, more than nine hours of battery life, full magnesium alloy case, shock mounted hard drive and an integrated wireless modem.
Ideal User:
Health care professionals, mobile professionals
MSRP: $1,899

Panasonic Toughbook CF-W5 The semi-rugged CF-W5 is the flagship thin-and-light unit. It has a magnesium alloy case, 12.1- inch screen, 60GB shockmounted and removable hard drive and weighs 2.8 lbs. It has a battery life of longer than 6 hours and includes an integrated wireless modem.
Ideal User: Mobile professionals
MSRP: $1,899

 

Links
ABI Research www.abiresearch.com
Alltel Wireless www.alltel.com
American Small Business Travelers Alliance (ASBTA) www.asbta.com
Cingular Wireless www.cingular.com
Hewlett-Packard Co. www.hp.com
Ingram Micro Inc. www.ingrammicro.com
Intel Corp. www.intel.com
Nokia www.nokia.com
Panasonic Corp. www.panasonic.com
Sprint Nextel Corp. www.sprint.com
StarMobile www.starmobileusa.com
Synnex Corp. www.synnex.com
Tech Data Corp. www.techdata.com
Verizon Wireless www.verizonwireless.com

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