This Laptop Runs Cross Country

Fresh from glory as chief designer of Apple Computer Inc.'s PowerBook laptop PC, John K. Medica's first move with Dell Computer Corp. in early 1993 was a potential career-buster. Medica persuaded CEO Michael Dell to scrap all the company's existing laptop blueprints and start from scratch. Already way behind in the notebook business, Dell would suffer $20 million in write-offs with the move. Worse, it would mean placing a huge bet mn a single premium model to resurrect Dell's tarnished name.

After taking an extra six months to research customer needs, Medica's team unveiled the Latitude XP last August to rave reviews. Combining industry-leading battery-life technology with sleek ergonomics, Dell sold some 34,000 Latitudes in the fourth quarter--equal to its entire 1993 laptop sales.

The main reason for the success: designing around the latest battery technology. In search of a machine that could keep going through an entire coast-to-coast flight, Medica poured resources into a partnership with Sony Corp., his old manufacturing partner for the Apple PowerBook. The plan: to adapt the lithium ion batteries used in camcorders for the PC market. This required lots of special circuitry and software from Dell. But the effort paid off in spades. PC rivals such as Toshiba Corp. are only now introducing full-feature notebooks with lithium ion batteries, which give from five to eight hours of use between charges.

The team also used research to improve the outside of the box. Studies showed that people don't always hold their notebooks in the same way--so the designers created oversized mouse buttons around a centrally located trackball, a setup that had been introduced by the PowerBook. And rather than easy-to-break flaps for the battery and removable hard-drive slots, designers attached covers to these peripherals. Snap them in and the job's done; there's no gate to close.

Because some of Dell's earlier machines suffered from quality problems, designers went all out for reliability and durability. The Latitude has a conventional 1-mm-thick plastic enclosure rather than one made from thinner new materials, and it has beefed-up hinges to hold the screen in place.

Dell's gamble appears to have paid off. The company had boffo first-quarter earnings results and the new notebooks were 17% of sales. Design plus the right technology and price equals success.

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