Disclaimer: Intel, AMD, Dell, Microsoft and HP are all clients of mine.
For years, true workstation users—folks tied at the hip to Unix—really didnt have an acceptable mobile solution.
They had the option of buying huge, luggable products from companies such as Dolch. In weight and size, they were more like the original suitcase class of portable computers of the late 80s, but regular laptops were simply too underpowered for their use.
Performance has made great gains over the past couple of years, and engineers were increasingly found using high-performance laptop computers, which took Dolch out of the business and found high-performance consumer companies such as AlienWare and Apple creeping in.
Interestingly enough, engineers using Apple laptops comprised one of the fastest-growing groups, because those laptops ran a version of FreeBSD Unix.
Clearly, this didnt sit well with either IBM or Intel, particularly since both companies have extremely high concentrations of engineers who would likely be shot on sight if they were found using an Apple computer for company business.
As a result, the two companies announced Monday that they have collaborated to build a Linux-based IBM T42-series laptop on steroids.
They say it will meet the engineering communitys need for a truly “laptop class” portable computer that will adequately run the necessary engineering applications and will be supported by a company that truly understands engineers. They also announced that Intel is in broad trials with these laptops internally.
IBM is one of the market leaders for workstations, and Intel has been slowly working its way into the workstation market for some time, so its not surprising that both teamed up to make this happen.
What is interesting is the top-down approach to a Linux-based product. Typically, you would expect the first official offering on a low-cost software platform to be bottoms up, but Linux is simply not ready for the general desktop yet, and vendors such as Dell continue to report that Linux-based laptops are unprofitable.
But the workstation class of laptop computers carries strong margins and sells to an audience willing to pay for the performance it needs.
Engineers have also shown a willingness to pay for the software value they are receiving, regardless of the platform they are receiving it on. For instance, CAD products maintain the same prices on Windows and Unix, suggesting they would maintain these margins on Linux as well.
This position was exemplified at the recent SIIA conference, where professional products were reported to hold prices much better on Linux then general productivity products or consumer offerings.
Of course, to make this happen, they also needed a software application vendor, and for this they chose Cadence Design Systems, one of the leaders in electronic design automation. Cadence is not only heavily used by Intel but by competing firms such as National Semiconductor.
This is likely the tip of the iceberg. HP, Sun, Dell and others also lust after this workstation market, and AMD has being making inroads into the desktop segment of this space for some time through its relationships with Sun and HP.
This is just the first salvo, and we will likely see a number of technology providers—and hardware vendors—jump into this space over the next few months.
This is a segment with unique performance needs, but the high-resolution screens and some of the graphics technology required by it should migrate down to the general desktop over time.
One other player who may be interested in this space is Microsoft. Windows NT started out targeted at workstations, and that focus was largely lost when NT was shifted to the desktop. This could be a wake-up call for Microsoft because where engineers go, their companies often follow.
Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology. Full disclosure: One of Enderles clients is Microsoft as well as Advanced Micro Devices, Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Transmeta, VIA and Vulcan. In addition, Enderle sits on advisory councils for AMD, ClearCube, Comdex, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and TCG.