By Stephen H. Wildstrom I have often grumbled about how the commoditization of notebook computers has been squeezing the innovation out of the products. The most obvious benefit of commoditization is low prices, but with major manufacturers producing similar designs, often using identical components, the corporate color scheme and logo is often the only way to tell different models apart. But it turns out the numbing standardization of design can sometimes benefit a truly oddball product.
Take the Tadpole Sparcle, a notebook you're not going to see at your local CompUSA, or any other retail store for that matter. It looks like an ordinary, if somewhat bulky, laptop, but it's really a mobile version of a Sun Microsystems (SUNW) workstation, powered by a Sun SPARC processor and running Sun's Solaris flavor of Unix.
The remarkable thing about the Tadpole is that prices start at $2,995, though a fully loaded system will top out at more than $5,000. Still, those prices are well under half what a mobile Solaris system would have cost a year or two ago. The secret is that while the Sparcle uses a custom system board to accommodate the SPARC processor, everything else, from the power supply to the disk drives to the 14- or 15-inch display is an off-the-shelf mass market component, and the units are put together by one of Taiwan's prolific laptop manufacturers.
ARMY ISSUE. The Solaris operating system is generally used by financial institutions, telecommunications companies, utilities, government, and other large consumers of computing power, often to run large transaction-processing databases with massive servers. But one beauty of a modern operating system -- Solaris, other Unixes, or Windows -- is that huge applications designed for servers with 64 or more processors will run unmodified, albeit a lot more slowly, on a modest single-processor machine.
The U.S. military, which likes the robustness and security of Solaris, is a big fan of Sparcle. The Army is buying hundreds of units -- toughed up to military specifications by General Dynamics -- so that troops in the field can run the same heavy-duty applications as the big computers back at support bases.
Probably the largest potential group of customers for these specialized notebooks is the engineers and sales people who develop and sell Solaris software. Solaris programs are generally complex beasts, and a sales person or customer-service engineer can't just install software on customer's system to demonstrate it. But a live demo is a lot more compelling than a series of PowerPoint slides showing what a program would look like if it could actually be run.
TECHIE GEAR. Sparcle is designed so that it can be used both as a portable server and a personal workstation. At 7 lbs., it's big and heavy by today's notebook standards, but not unmanageable. Solaris is not a user-friendly operating system, but the technical folks who will be carrying a Sparcle are not averse to typing in some cryptic Unix commands. To provide for normal productivity applications, the Sparcle comes loaded with Sun's StarOffice, which offers reasonable compatibility with Microsoft Office, and a Netscape browser and e-mail program.
For the overwhelming majority of us who run Windows, notebook computers, especially those designed for the corporate market, increasingly are becoming boring commodities. You can choose them by size, weight, and price, since brand matters less and less. Yet, it's good to know that in some odd niches of the business, this price-driven commoditization is making possible some value-added products that otherwise might not exist. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online