Notebooks: Whan the World goes Mobile

Notebooks: Whan the World goes Mobile

by / October 31, 1999
Mobile computing is expected to grow as more government agencies look at the technologies that allow their field workers, business travelers, etc, to access information from anywhere at anytime. In the Information Age, portability is key, and size and weight do matter.

Fortunately, notebook manufacturers have been responsive to government agencies' demands for notebooks in a wide range of sizes, shapes, weights and prices. The variety of notebooks on the market is staggering. No matter what the agencies' requirements or budgets are, they can always find something in today's market that will fit their mobile needs.

Information attains its maximum utility only when it moves and is accessible to users. For the Northwest Bergen Central Dispatch in New Jersey, which handles calls coming via 911--police, fire and EMS--seconds count. An accurate and speedy flow of information is a matter of life and death.

The emergency units are using mobile computing -- Gateway's Solo 2500 notebooks and wireless technology from Cerulean Technologies -- to access more complete and timely information, which lets police, fire, ambulance and EMS staff perform more effectively.

"We are taking our dispatch screen and moving it out to the field. Our job is to get the information and send it out to the field units quickly, accurately and with as much information as possible," said Bob Greenlaw, the dispatch center's director.

Notebook computers provide instant access to vital information, such as who called, the nature of the emergency and the exact location of the emergency.

"[The notebook does] not only have our dispatch program on it, but also a mapping program. Therefore, field units can actually look at the area they are responding to and identify the exact location of the building," said Greenlaw. "So, oftentimes, the dispatchers have access to information from databases -- we have here a database that has 15 years' worth of calls in it.

"If you think about safety -- it could be hazardous material stored in your building, you could be reporting a fire, you can be talking about a home where there is a history of domestic violence -- and, certainly, emergency units like to know that," said Greenlaw.

Key Elements

"Miniaturization has been the major trend," said Mary Land, product marketing manager for Gateway Business. "Our products are getting thinner and lighter, while trying to provide full functionality -- similar to the power of a complete desktop system."

"The most interesting development in notebooks, that's been happening over the last year, is the differentiation in the different notebook product categories," said Jay Parker, product manager with Dell. "It used to be that customers were offered essentially one flavor, whether that end-user was going to travel or whether that end-user was going to use it from point to point, from the office to home and back to the office.

"What we have been finding is that our IT customers are looking to maintain the simplicity in their environment but they need different types of products to run the applications and to
perform [the] types of tasks that they need," Parker added.

There is also the issue of compatibility. Microsoft Windows in all its flavors -- 95, 98, NT, Windows 2000 and CE2 -- is still the operating system of choice for many mobile warriors.

"One issue of difficulty, especially for a small government agency, is that users have to port different operating systems. That makes it quite difficult to manage," Land said. "I think things are more and more moving toward one operating system, such as Windows 2000. All Gateway [portables] are shipped with some form of Windows operating system currently."

Two main manufacturers of processors used in notebooks today, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), are manufacturing more powerful and efficient processors, which are smaller in size and use less power than their predecessors. While Intel has long dominated the notebook market, AMD is catching up, and the competition has driven notebook prices down.

Of course, processors need hard drives, and while the typical notebook's hard drive is in the neighborhood of 4GB to 8GB, Fujitsu introduced a 18GB large-capacity hard drive for notebook computers in July. If replacing your hard drive is not an option, external hard drives that use the PC Card interface to ensure high-speed transfer can be easily used to upgrade.

Today, portable storage upgrades for laptops include Zip, SyQyest and LS120 drives. Portable storage is available in both internal and external drives that connect to a notebook through the PC Card slot or parallel port.

Remember that many older laptops don't accept more than 32MB or 64MB of RAM. Notebook memory, unlike memory for desktops, is generally proprietary and, therefore, more expensive. A 32MB single inline memory module for a desktop PC costs about $39, while the least expensive 32MB laptop chip costs $70 or more -- often more than twice as much.

Crystal Clear

Liquid crystal display (LCD) screens make up about one-third the cost of notebook computers and are a critical factor in determining whether prices for these computers rise or fall. Notebooks have been hit by the increases in the price of LCDs since the end of last year, and last year's trend toward low-cost, sub-$1,000 notebooks was halted by the LCD shortage.

"In actuality, the component pricing is not going down as dramatically as it has in the previous years. LCD display prices have not gone down," said Gateway's Land. "LCD manufacturers suffered heavily during the Asian economic crisis. It's all the matter of supply and demand. We want too much and they can't supply it. So the prices go up."

The shortage of LCDs will likely begin easing early next year, breaking the price grip on portable computers and allowing costs to finally fall closer to inexpensive desktop PCs.

Price declines have further helped drop bottom-line costs and retail prices.


Notebooks installed in emergency vehicles undergo extreme punishment.

"When we were looking at buying notebooks, we got two schools of thought," said New Jersey's Greenlaw. "One school said, 'Buy rugged laptops in the $7,000 or $8,000 category because of their rugged application -- for riding in the patrol, in heat and cold and the bumping.' The other school, which our center adopted, was to buy the Gateways for $1,500 apiece with a three-year service contract. If one were really destroyed, they would replace it. If you do a little math, if you bought three of them and paid $8,000 each, you've paid $24,000. I've bought 18 at that price.

"So I buy some spares. If there's a problem, I take it immediately out of the car and put another one in. Send it in for repair and the other unit is in service. It's more cost-effective," Greenlaw added. "We had pretty hot summer and we had very good luck with them. I had one coming out of a car because the police officer hit a phone pole, and the computer didn't like the airbag."


Dell's Parker said the main points to consider when planning to purchase notebooks include:

? the total cost over the life of the product;

? that the configuration that you buy and standardize on is around for a long period of time;

? that the next model that you buy is compatible and consistent with the model that you bought the previous year;

? that the vendor that you use advises you of the changes upcoming and is able to help you manage the change;

? making sure that purchasers get a warranty offering that will cover the product for life;

? making sure if you have a user go down, the service provider will come on-site and fix it the next business day, which minimizes downtime and the cost to your organization.

There are a number of other factors to consider, such as multimedia capability, expansion opportunities, internal modems and wireless modems.

"Wireless is really what makes a mobile computer mobile, so you are not limited to a LAN, modem, etc. And that's when with mobile computing -- the benefits of it -- become that much more significant," Parker said.

"Wireless technologies are being utilized in local schools," Land said. "Universities and business are using wireless right now and trying to standardize on wireless technologies where you can have one hub and a different manufacturer's transmitter."

Major computer companies such as Microsoft and Apple as well as telephone companies have begun to heavily invest in the wireless area.

So has government. The Scarborough, Maine, Police Department is using Cerulean's PacketWriter 2.0, a wireless field-reporting system that allows patrol officers to write and approve reports in realtime from their notebook computers.

PackcketWriter 2.0 is used in conjunction with PacketCluster wireless from Cerulean to wirelessly create, approve, review and store information in office-based record systems while in the field.