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Dell laptop lines to diverge in 2004

The computer maker plans to make its two laptop lines more distinct in the second half of 2004, a move that could better suit its products to a growing customer base.

LAS VEGAS--Dell plans to make its two laptop lines more distinct in the second half of 2004, a move that could better suit its products to a growing customer base.

Today, roughly 60 percent of Dell's corporate Latitude mobile computers are internally identical to its consumer-oriented Inspiron line, with only cosmetic differences. But next year, that overlap will be reduced "significantly," spokeswoman Anne Camden said at a media event Sunday at the Comdex trade show.

Camden characterized the move as "fine tuning," but NPD Intelect analyst Stephen Baker said the move could be more significant.

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"When the consumer people and the commercial people are too close together, you don't get good thinking," Baker said. "You get products that are neither fish nor fowl."

The changes primarily will affect the company's Inspiron line, because corporate customers buying the Latitude models prefer a slower pace of change, Camden said. "With Latitude, you want to be as stable as possible," she said.

There are other reasons to improve the Inspiron line, Baker added. These include wooing small and midsize business customers who gravitate toward the consumer-oriented products.

"For Dell, it's more of a major change, because they've been more enterprise-focused than consumer-focused," Baker said. Winning over small and midsize businesses could drive sales of other products, such as wireless networking gear and printers, he added.

Round Rock, Texas-based Dell in recent years has moved into servers, networking gear, printers, and home electronics, but PCs remain the mainstay of its business.

One difference between corporate and consumer buyers is that the business customers have a greater desire for wireless networking technology, Camden said. More than half of the Latitudes sold include wireless communication abilities, either through Intel's Centrino 802.11b or Dell's TrueMobile 802.11b and 802.11g technology.

All Latitudes ship with wireless capability, unless customers say they don't want it.

Wireless communications technology and the Pentium M processor are included in the Centrino collection of chips Intel sells. Although customers buy Centrino systems for its wireless capabilities, a feature with greater appeal is the the longer battery life the more power-efficient Pentium M makes possible, Camden said.