Dell May Give Its Notebooks Some Tough Love

The computer maker says it's thinking about offering a beefier, rugged notebook as well as a tablet PC.

NEW YORK—Dell thinks some of its customers want notebooks that are a little tougher.

While speaking at the companys Technology Day here on Sept. 12, Alex Gruzen, general manager of Dells Product Group, famous for standing on one of Dells new Latitude machines to demonstrate its chassis strength, said that the Round Rock, Texas, PC maker has been studying the idea of expanding its notebook lineup with a "rugged" model and a tablet PC.

The company, which could potentially offer one or both products as soon as 2007 continually looks at new mobile technology—its even studied the Ultramobile PC space, according to Gruzen—and recently it has seen greater potential in the two areas of the market.

"I think we could expand the whole [rugged notebook] market," Gruzen said in an interview with eWEEK in New York.

Rugged or ruggedized notebooks, as they are called, are generally built with special metal cases. They are designed to withstand shock and exposure to the elements, including water.

Their internal components, such as hard drives, are generally mounted in shock-resistant enclosures as well. They are used most often by companies who conduct field work, such as oil and gas exploration, or police and military.

But given that ruggedized notebooks present a fairly small portion of the overall notebook market in terms of unit shipments, Dell and many other companies have stayed away from them. Panasonics ToughBook and General Dynamics Itronix GoBook may be the best-known models.

Dell would be able to supply a rugged notebook that is based on the same hardware as its standard Latitude notebooks, a prospect that might make it simpler for businesses and government customers to buy and maintain the machines.

"Customers have had to look to other suppliers to fulfill their needs," Gruzen said. But a Dell rugged machine "could be pretty appealing in that it could make the deployment of a rugged version [of a Dell notebook] easier.

Dell sees similar potential for tablet PCs, he said.

The PC maker has sold tablets made by other manufacturers, such as Motion Computing, but it has not yet offered one of its own, due to what it feels is a fairly limited opportunity for it.

However, based on the fact that Microsoft has now said that it will include tablet PC features—now part of a special Windows XP Tablet Edition—with a standard version of Windows Vista, Dell believes tablets will become more attractive to buyers, Gruzen said.

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"Until now, [the tablet market] has been just way too limited" for Dell, Gruzen said.

Indeed, analysts have predicted that tablet shipments will increase over time but by 2009 will still total fewer than 5 million units, a relatively small figure when compared with overall notebook shipments.

However, once tablet features are available inside Vista, the market "starts to look interesting," Gruzen said.

With the change in how tablet features are presented, manufacturers such as Dell have the potential to make their standard notebooks more tablet-like versus offering a specialized tablet PC product that could change the prospects of the computer category, analysts have said.

Gruzen stressed, however, that Dell has simply been evaluating the two markets and has not yet made the call on whether to enter one or both of them.

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