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Cute as a button, but who wants 'em?

SPARC notebooks seem like a good idea at first glance
Is there really a market for tiny workstations?

By Michael Jay Tucker

November  1996
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SPARC laptops seem like such a good idea. Workstation power for road warriors! But workstations combine big screens, huge disks, Unix, and high-speed networking in one expensive box. You can fit only so much in a battery-powered laptop, which leads to compromises. So, ah... can anyone out there tell us what they're good for? Software demos, spies, and the military are very good customers. (2,400 words)

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It seemed so damn logical.

No. Really. It did. The logic was perfect. Air tight. It went like this: workstations are a lot like personal computers. Very large, very fast, very powerful personal computers... admittedly... but they're used by one person. That means they're personal, right? And obviously, they're computers. Ergo, they're personal computers.

And lots of people buy personal computers. Moreover, a goodly fraction of those people travel a lot. And they buy "portable" PCs. In fact, come to think of it... that's how Compaq got started, remember? Compaq built that "luggable" that was about the size of a steamer trunk on steroids. Well, it wasn't exactly a "laptop." More of a "knee crusher." But the point is, Compaq got started with just that little transportable and today the company is rich and powerful and when it sneezes, Wall Street gets a cold.

Market research firm IDC reports that the 1995 worldwide workstation market was 1.4 million desktops generating $15.2 billion, up about a 30 percent in units and dollars from the year before. IDC predicts moderate growth in this market, and big growth for Unix servers.

So, concludes the logic, There Must Be An Immensely Huge Market For Notebook Workstations.

And really you can't fault the logic...

It was just that the premises were wrong.

`Tenuous grip on viability'
Currently, there are three companies selling portable SPARC-based workstations. These are Telos, RDI Computer Corp., Carlsbad, CA, and Tadpole Technology, Austin, TX. The Telos products -- the ACE SS-5/M and the ACE SS-20/M -- are Sun Microsystems motherboards packaged in rugged housings. They sold almost entirely into the military market, and you can argue that they are more transportables than notebooks. Thus Telos is really beyond the scope of this article.

RDI, meanwhile, offers the PowerLite notebook system -- including the PowerLite Turbo 170, which is based on the high-performance 170-MHz TurboSPARC. Tadpole, meanwhile, sells the Tadpole SPARCbook 3.

These latter two companies are dissimilar in origins and product strategy. Tadpole is a British firm which originally was in the embedded system board market. It also offers Intel Pentium-based and DEC Alpha-based notebooks. RDI was founded expressly to pursue the laptop workstation market, and while it toyed with designs for a MIPS processor-based laptop in the early 1990s, it has shipped only SPARC-based product. Tadpole's computers are smaller and lighter than RDI's PowerLites. The PowerLites, on the other hand, have more room for internal peripherals.

The two are, however, alike in that they're sole occupants of their market. No one else sells SPARC-based notebooks into the commercial markets. Sun Microsystems briefly marketed a transportable -- the suitcase-sized Voyager -- but seems to have lost interest in the product about a year and a half ago. Just about the same time that Java and the World Wide Web took off so dramatically, Voyager sank without so much a ripple.

So that leaves RDI and Tadpole. How are they doing in their semi-monopoly? "They are clinging tenuously to viability," said Joe Clabby, director of research at the Aberdeen Group, a high-tech consulting and market analysis based in Boston, MA.

Naturally, the vendors themselves are a bit more positive about their condition. But even they admit that the market for notebook workstations is never exactly going to rival the chaps down at Jurassic Park. "It's a good market, but I wouldn't call it booming," said Dave Hartley, director of marketing at RDI.

"It's not going to keep Compaq happy," agrees Bernard Hulme, Group CEO of Tadpole. "It's a niche." How big a niche? "In the thousands of units," he said. "That's per year. Not millions. But thousands."

Market numbers on exactly how many thousands that is can be a tad difficult to extract. "It's so small that nobody tracks them," said Mike McGuire, senior industry analyst at the market research firm of Dataquest. "People pay attention to the DOS notebooks. And then, anything else gets thrown into Other."

But you can find some revenue numbers. In the United States and Europe, laptop workstations earn "about $120 million dollars per year," said Kathy Bubien, product marketing manager for RDI. "That's $200 million when you include Japan."

Two hundred million dollars is a lot of money for one person. But, for an industry, it can be rather small. Dataquest's McGuire said that individual models of major brand name Intel-based notebooks will do that much business in a year.

So, why do notebook workstations inhabit a market which even its partisans describe as small at best? What happened to the precise geometric logic which says that the notebooks would do so much better than that?

Quite simply, it seems that notebooks do not lend themselves to the way that workstations are used...or purchased.


Not portable people
First and foremost, workstations may be personal, and they may be computers, but they're not PCs. They're used for very different purposes -- like design, data analysis, and computation. And these aren't things you typically do while in transit. "People who use workstations don't tend to be real portable," explained Dataquest's McGuire. "They go to their office, they do their work, and then they go home."

Moreover, the work they're doing between nine and five requires hardware that simply doesn't lend itself to balancing on a knee or an airline tray. Like, for example, very large, very high resolution monitors. "A lot of engineers want 17-inch screens at a minimum," said Tadpole's Hulme. "No portable solution goes to that size unless you have an external display."

Of course, there are occasions where do you find an application that requires both portability and a workstation -- say, for example, network diagnostics, where a service person will actually have to physically travel about a network with a powerful Unix system -- but even these can be cold comfort. "Consider system upgrades," said Dataquest's McGuire. With Intel notebooks, he said, you can expect your customer to be in the market for a replacement system every two years or so. You can plan for it.

But SPARC-based laptops aren't that way at all. Because they meet a limited need, and they're expensive -- $10K or more -- customers tend to hang on to their Unix notebooks. They may upgrade tomorrow. Or five years from now. Or ten. There is no regular and predictable cycle of purchase and obsolescence. "And it's hard to build a company on that," he said.

As if that all weren't bad enough, there's an ogre in the distance. Perhaps even more than SPARC-based workstations, SPARC-based laptops face the NT bugaboo. "NT doesn't run very well or portable systems yet," said Aberdeen's Clabby. "But it will. And you can expect the Unix notebooks to suffer a lot of heartburn over that." If companies can get something only half way like the functionality of a $10K Unix notebook on a $4K Intel system, they'll be sourly tempted to go with the NT system, even if they keep the Unix server or workstation back in the office.

`People scoff, but shouldn't'
So does that mean that the SPARC-based notebook is dead? And that their vendors should bring out Wintel systems or else get a real job? Say, spooning the foamed milk down at Starbucks?

Well... that's a bit harsh, too. There are markets that really do need SPARC-based portables. And some of them show up in rather unexpected places. Like, for example, software sales.

"People scoff at it, but they shouldn't," said Tadpole's Bernard Hulme. "An excellent market for us is software demonstration." Suppose that you're a software vendor in the Unix workstation market. Suppose further that you need to go trotting about to your potential customers showing off your software. But, that means that if you want to demonstrate your product to the buyers, you have to either ask them to let you borrow one of their expensive production systems to let you load your software, or you need to carry around with you a full-sized workstation.

Either way, you're in for some grief. The result is that marketing professionals have a real need for portable SPARC-based systems -- notebooks -- that can be stowed under an airplane seat. And companies like RDI and Tadpole derive a significant fraction of their business by meeting that need. It may be the single biggest application of SPARC-based laptops. "I would say that it [software demonstration] is our single largest market," said RDI's Bubien.

Behind marketing come a variety of other uses. Both companies note that their products show up a lot in diagnostic applications -- where, for example, there is a network problem and a service person has to move physically though the enterprise and use sophisticated testing tools -- running on a SPARC-based system -- to track down the glitch, or, in one celebrated case, a human intruder. Tsutomu Shimomura used several RDI portables during his celebrated duel with super-hacker Kevin Mitnick.

Less dramatic, but perhaps more important in the long run, there are certain medical imaging applications. RDI cites cases where hospital staff will carry notebooks to patient bedsides to perform on the spot interpretation of X-ray and other data. And, both companies have hopes for future sales in what Tadpole's Hulme calls "the take-out computer market." That is, companies may wish to give their staffs the ability to check out and take home notebook systems so that they can work after hours.

But, right now, the second biggest market for both -- after marketing -- is the Federal government and military. "It is at 40 percent of our business," said RDI's Bubien. Intelligence is the major application within that market. Individuals -- "in the field," as the saying goes -- will use the devices to analyze aerial reconnaissance data, for example.

Marines and demos
And, in fact, it isn't hard to find people for whom are SPARC-based notebooks are genuinely invaluable. One of them is Nicholas Gulrajani. "I'm a systems engineer at Pure Atria," he said. His company, the recently merged Pure Software and Atria, is now based in both Lexington, MA and Sunnyvale, CA. "We use the RDI a lot to demonstrate our software."

Gulrajani has to go, physically, to his customers' sites, both for sales and for consulting work afterwards. "And we bring the RDI," he said. "And it's been a life saver." He needed a powerful system that ran Solaris on SPARC. The only alternative was a full-sized Sun workstation, and that was just too much trouble. "We needed something that wasn't quite so monstrous."

Even a Pentium-based notebook running Solaris wasn't an option. "Our product doesn't run on Solaris Intel," he said. "The RDI was what we needed."

Another demo user is Scott McPeek, vice president of information technology at Platinum Technology Inc. "We used to haul around Sun IPXes and rent monitors," he said. That wasn't fun. Now, he uses the RDI. "We can walk in and show our product right off the street."

He is particularly fond of the RDI's large disk and memory. "What you've got is massive disk space, in addition to having a reasonable processor and a reasonable monitor." He'd like to have to more of both. "But reality has to put in an appearance somewhere."

His only real complaint is that it is a expensive option. "The down side of this is that you pay for it," he said. "We're paying about $20,000 for our demo units."

For a non-demo user, you don't have to go further than the Washington DC Beltway. Michael Gollobin is president of Control Concepts Inc., Fairfax, VA. His company is a systems and solutions provider selling into government agencies that have black budgets and names with just three letters. Among his products are the RDI notebooks. "You know, I don't know what they do with the systems," he said, "and they're not going to tell me."

Some of his customers, though, include the National Security Agency, the Marine Corps, and various parts of the Navy, such as the the Naval Research and Development labs and the Naval Undersea Warfare center. "Most of the people I deal with are either intelligence or Department of Defense research," he explained. In general, they're doing things with either data analysis or display in the field.

One his military clients, he said, is installing RDIs in Hummer all-terrain vehicles. "They're putting them in as the heart of a mobile communications center," he said.

`Not hypercompetitive'
So, all in all, there is indeed a market for SPARC-based notebooks. A small market, but a market. "There is a need for them," said Dataquest's McGuire. "And that means there's buyers for them."

But there's the rub. The market for notebook workstations doesn't behave like the workstation market.

The workstation market is a general-purpose computer market. It is composed of large vendors who sell general purpose systems into broad horizontal industry segments. That isn't what notebooks look like at all. "Ours is a niche market," explained Tadpole's Hulme. "It's a business where you find a niche, develop the niche, and then look for the next niche which logically attaches to it."

Thus, the SPARC-based portables market looks a lot like the VAR market. And it has many of the features of a specialized vertical. It's small -- so small, that large vendors can't enter it profitably. And, it requires unique skills. Notebook design is, after all, not a skill found on every street corner. All of this serves to limit the number and size of players in the field. "The bad news is that it is a small market," said RDI's Hartley. "The good news is that it creates nice opportunities for a company our size. And, it isn't hypercompetitive."

But, there's a down side to VARhood. VARs and VAR-like companies tend to lead furious, high-speed lives. In good times, they flourish and fill every conceivable niche. However, like the lilies of the field, they can go from bloom to bare earth in the twinkling of an eye. Even minute changes in the environment -- shifts of interest in a supplier, new competitors -- can have immense and disastrous consequences for niche players.

Still, at the moment, there may be a hint of rain in the air, but there's no sign of a storm. "As long as Sun maintains the kind of sales and marketing that its got," said RDI user and remarketer Gollobin of Control Concepts, "there'll be a need for SPARC-based notebooks. And, let's face it, right now, there's no end in sight."

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About the author
Boston-based Michael Jay Tucker ( has written about computers in one form or another for more than one decade. He's been on staff at publications ranging from Mini-Micro Systems to SunExpert, and authored or co-authored several technical books. He's also the author of the weekly column, explosive-cargo, which is distributed via e-mail to more than 2,000 subscribers, and editor of the Webzine, Explosive Cargo, at

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