"Ultraportables are now a viable market" according to Catherine Boyhan, product manager for Gateway which, like most companies nearly four years ago, abandoned the ultra notebook market "because there was no market". Four years on, and perhaps inspired by the arrival of Sony's ultra-thin Vaio, among others, Gateway is joining the ranks of notebook manufacturers looking at a new ways to boost revenues with a little number codenamed, Fire Ant.
Gateway's story is somewhat different from that of manufacturers like Toshiba which clearly targets the corporate arena with its premium systems: "We are looking towards the type of user IBM targets," says Boyhan, "corporate, yes, but not the mega big organisations. I think the Fire Ant [to be re-christened the Solo 3100 when it is launched on September 28] will appeal to customers whose staff enjoy their autonomy." In other words the SOHO market and, perhaps, the early adopter who may well choose the Fire Ant over competing products from Acer, Sony and Toshiba.
Magnesium seems to be the "in-thing" for notebooks and the Fire Ant has a magnesium alloy lid that provides the only protection for a flimsy looking screen that measures 12.1 inches across. A Pentium II 233 powers the machine which comes with 32 MB of RAM, a 2.1 GB hard drive and -- unusual for an ultra specification -- a built in CD-ROM drive. Boyhan says other flavours will be available once the machine launches, including one with a DVD drive.
But it will take more than a magnesium lid and a fancy codename to sell Gateway's offering to corporates -- even those in smaller companies -- according to Ian Darbyshire, Program manager for industry analyst IDC. "I'm not really sure this is an ‘Ultra notebook' says Darbyshire, "but if it is it will obviously do well in a market where travel is important. It certainly isn't a consumer product."
Asked if Gateway's brand can work in the SOHO arena, when its strength lies with consumers, Derbyshire remains cautious: "It's a product for people who are travelling a lot -- therefore a niche market, although it is a large niche. Gateway has never been strong in the corporate arena but that's not to say it won't appeal to SOHO buyers."
The Fire Ant/Solo 3100 will launch for £1,549 although cheaper versions will follow. Details are not yet available.