As laptop market shrinks, makers woo professional buyers with new features – like military-grade toughness

21st August 2023
As laptop market shrinks, makers woo professional buyers with  new features – like military-grade toughness
Civilian use, military quality, is the hallmark of new generation laptops like this Asus Expertbook

By Anand Parthasarathy
August 21, 2023: Unlike  mobile phones where the market  keeps renewing,  as buyers replace and upgrade their devices, the  personal computer market -- desktop and portable --  is seeing  sequential decline. 
The India traditional PC market continued to drop, shipping only 3.22 million units , a decline of 15.3% year-over-year (YoY)  in the  the second quarter  of  2023 (April - June 2023), according to  an August 17 announcement by market analyst IDC. While the demand for desktops  declined by about 7% , the notebook (the term is favoured by industry over laptop as the devices become thinner, lighter) category fared even worse as it declined by 18.5% YoY.
Under the circumstances, it is rather surprising that the government has chosen this category – laptops, PCs, tablets, all-in-ones – to  bring under a licencing regime for import.   The numbers consumed in India,   would seem not to warrant such control.
And  the global makers especially, of portable PC devices,  tend to  place their plants   in strategic locations where the  supply chain, the local taxation system and the logistics are most advantageous. In Asia this has meant mostly China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia – and India.   
Except to relax the operational date,  the government seems to have dug in its heels on licensing,  in the face of fairly wide-spread industry and analyst  opinion. The consensus (except among  associations of purely Indian companies) seems to be   that such a return to 1960s and 70s- style  import control is  unlikely to have anything more than a marginal effect in pushing the major tech players of  laptops and PCs to Make in India.
This is especially true of laptops where the brands that currently have manufacturing facilities in India, both Indian and international players --including the biggest seller, HP --  need to source as much as possible from  local markets and therefore aim  at the mass  consumer market – home, education, individual professional.
The challenge for manufacturers in a low-growth market is to add unique features which convert standard into premium products  -- and some of these features demand  hardware or manufacturing plants that cannot be relocated overnight to India. It does not make sense to disturb a well-established  supply chain that has worked very well.
The gaming  industry has created a niche demand for extremely fast-response laptops used in international  gaming competitions, fuelled by special graphic intensive chips from players like Nvidia.
Makers like Asus, Dell, Acer, HP, Lenovo etc  have been ploughing this field for years. Asus has  established a sub brand called Republic of Gamers or ROG.
Military quality in consumer  products
Now a new avenue of adding premium features has opened up – ultra durable laptops with military-grade components, that are being increasingly welcomed by  professionals, especially those who travel constantly, having to subject their carry-on  computers to the gauntlet of airport security inspections, X-Ray machines and the like.
This is a relatively new category and I have had the  opportunity of trying out one of these rugged laptops for a few weeks recently. Among the popular military-grade laptops  the well known   include versions of the Lenovo ThinkPad, HP Elitebook, MSI Creator  or MSI Summit and Asus Zenbook.
Asus  recently  unveiled  another rugged laptop category  to India – the ExpertBook B 1402–which combines toughness with extreme lightness: just  1.49 kg for a 14 inch full high  definition screen machine.  There is  A 15.6 inch model,  the B 1502, that weighs 1.69 kg.
The unit I got to try is the former, fueled by a 12th  generation Intel core processor, 512 GB storage and 8 GB of RAM.  It is customizable with storage in increments till  1 TB and memory up to  16 GB, extendable up to 48 GB with additional RAM cards. The operating System is Windows 11 and the WiFi  meets the latest WiFi 6 standard. None of this is very remarkable. Asus reserves its bells and whistles for the rugged build quality.
Before we look at that, it is worth seeing how standards developed for the US military – like MIL-STD-810-- have now trickled into the civilian arena. 
The standard is not new: it was published by the US Department of  Defence in 1967  and is today used as a benchmark by   most rugged laptop makers.  It requires the device to go through multiple tests each representing an environmental challenge  and manufacturers like Asus conduct at least 15 of them: they include drop, shock, vibration, altitude, humidity, spill (60 cc of water), force (25 kg of pressure on the laptop) high and low temperature ( to work from 0 to 40 degrees Celsius) electromagnetic interference… the list goes on. 
For laptops, there are special tests which involve 20,000 openings and closings of the device’s   360 degree hinge which lays the laptop flat,  as well as  5000 operations on the input-output ports like USB ( both Type A and Type C) . And  for this year's products,  a new test,  which checks for performance in an explosive atmosphere was added.   
The 42  watt-hour battery is capable of charging other devices like phones in an emergency.  The rugged features are achieved by steel inserts into the body of the laptop.
Normally such tough builds come at premium pricing. Though Asus has not yet formally announced pricing of the ExpertBook B 1402 and B 1502,  I  hazard a guess that the basic configuration of the B1402 with 512 GB storage and 8 GB RAM is going to be offered in India for less than Rs 50,000.
The  Asus ExpertBook  that I tried out is made in China – and possibly in some other south east Asian  countries.  Making and certifying such  a mil-grade laptop involves a certain expenditure on enlarged testing and  special assembly procedures which is why  companies tend to concentrate their lines in a few countries and ship across the region. 
The Indian government with its clear priorities   may  try to persuade  more and more makers  of laptops and high-end PCs to  set up such lines here, with production- linked incentives .  Doable? Yes. 
But at the end of the day,  the  size of the local market  and the complexity of local manufacture will dictate where the world’s leading   electronics and computer peripherals industry  players choose to create their more special products.
It’s all economics.

This has appeared in Swarajya