The Hewlett-Packard-Compaq Computer merger doesnt need any more challenges. But it got another one yesterday when IBM announced a suite of new features for its notebook and desktop computers.
The new technologies include the PC industrys first embedded security subsystem that automatically encrypts user keys, files and e-mails; integrated wireless capabilities for local area networking; and, finally, a system management tool called ImageUltra, which is designed to ease the problems that I-managers face when dealing with large numbers of personal computers.
IBMs PC division has struggled for years, and there have been ongoing rumors that Lou Gerstner, IBMs chairman and CEO, would sell the PC business so the company could concentrate on other, more profitable ventures. Those rumors were bolstered 18 months ago, when IBM got out of the retail PC business amid mounting losses. But yesterdays announcement - which includes four new ThinkPad notebook models and three new NetVista desktop models - shows that IBM is in the PC business for the long haul.
Alan Promisel, an IDC PC analyst, believes HP and Compaqs merger challenges just got a whole lot tougher. "You have IBM delivering a clear and consistent message, along with innovative new products. On other side, you have HP and Compaq delivering different messages with different support strategies," he said.
Personal computers have become a commodity, and the winning companies will be those that bring innovative designs and features to the customer, Promisel said He believes that the current downturn and shake-out in the PC industry will favor strong players such as Dell Computer and IBM, at the expense of struggling companies such as Compaq, Gateway and HP.
"Mobility, security and manageability are critical challenges for our customers - not just in the back office, but with the client devices their employees use everyday. These PC products and services will help address those challenges," said Jon Judge, general manager of IBMs personal computing division.
Of the three new features announced by IBM, the integrated security chip and UltraImage are the most interesting.
Called the "embedded security subsystem," IBM has added a security chip to the computer that, when used with the appropriate software, helps protect data from intruders, helps identify users involved in certain transactions and helps ensure data traffic is confidential. The system can also encrypt data on the computers hard drive, a factor that could protect the data if the computer is stolen. The subsystem is designed to work with software produced by IBMs subsidiary, Tivoli Systems.
The other big feature, UltraImage, will allow I-managers to better manage software packages distributed on PCs throughout an enterprise. In a given company, there may be hundreds - even thousands - of different software and hardware configurations for the work force. The specific configurations, called the PCs "image" are cumbersome. To alleviate the problem, many PC makers offer to configure the machines at the factory. With IBMs UltraImage, I-managers can create one master image of all their potential configurations, which can then be automatically loaded onto every PC. The final users of the machines would then select the exact software applications that they need.
IBM said UltraImage could reduce maintenance and support costs by about $100 per year per machine. To roll out the new service, Big Blue will rely on technology centers in Research Triangle Park, N.C.; Fujisawa, Japan; and Greenock, Scotland. The locations will provide custom image creation, management and other services.
UltraImage "dramatically simplifies deployment and all support of your IT hardware," IDCs Promisel said. "Creating a specific image is easier when all computers start from the same basic package. If programs are lost or systems go down, restoring the systems is easier."
The new announcements should bolster IBMs already good reputation in PCs, Promisel said. And they show that IBM "wont get into the PC pricing game, but will instead focus on services and innovation," he added.