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DEC fights for laptop life

In the midst of shortages and repositionings of its laptop lineup, Digital works to keep its HiNote Ultra notebook alive.

Digital Equipment Corporation is struggling to keep its HiNote Ultra notebook PC line afloat amid product shortages and a series of hasty repositionings of its models.

Though the extremely sleek, four-pound HiNote Ultra line is cited by many as the forerunner of the thin notebook designs now hitting the market from vendors such as IBM and Compaq and had been well received since its introduction last year, it has been plagued by marketing and manufacturing shortcomings.

In the latest twist, Digital has now decided to stop offering both the 100- and 120-MHz HiNote Ultra II models, though they have only been on the market a few months. Moreover, its 133-MHz model is in short supply, according to resellers of Digital notebooks.

This leaves a pricey 150-MHz-Pentium based Ultra II as the only readily available model, according to marketing representatives at a large Massachusetts-based reseller of HiNote Ultras. "They're between a rock and a hard place with the Ultra IIs. They have a hot product and hot design but can't ship," said Randy Giusto, manager of mobile computing research at International Data Corporation, a Framingham, Massachussetts-based market research firm. "It's unfortunate that they've dropped the [Pentium] 120. That's still a very popular configuration," he added.

Digital is, however, offering a 120-MHz notebook as part of its HiNote VP line, but the VP is a run-of-the-mill notebook design that bears no resemblance to the innovative Ultra II.

Digital asserts that its Ultra II strategy is highly calculated. "We're not attempting to satisfy the broad market for notebook computers. We're very focused on the commercial market for enterprise solutions. We've made it very clear that we're targeting profitable growth," a Digital spokesperson said.

Digital also stated that certain models would be available in limited supply. In response to the emergence and then quick disappearance of certain models, Digital says existing lower-end models are phased out when they reach "end-of-life."

But at least one California-based reseller thinks Digital's concept of end-of-life is quite hasty and abrupt. "We had the 100-MHz [Ultra II] for a little while [at the beginning] but then we didn't get any more. We haven't seen any for months. We don't know what happened," a salesperson said.