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Looking back at the SPARC Portables and Notebook market

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor
Tadpole was the first company to market a SPARC portable, way back in 1992, which they called the SPARCbook.

A year or so later Sun Microsystems thought this was such a good idea that Sun themselves launched their own portable which they called the Voyager. Unfortunately Sun's portable was more like a luggable. It was a dog, and marked the end of Sun's adventures in the portable arena for a decade.

In the early 1990s Tadpole had the SPARC notebook market to itself and although several military SPARC oems (such as Telos Systems Integration and Solaris Systems) marketed SPARC portables - these were mostly heavyweight luggables which integrated the motherboards from desktop SPARC workstations or embedded motherboards such as VME SPARC SBCs.

An exception was Dassault Electronique whose military portable was actually a ruggedized version of Tadpole's SPARCbook.

The first serious threat to Tadpole's cosy dominance of the SPARC notebook market came in 1997 from RDI Computer, which it started advertising its own US designed and manufactured products here in the SPARC Directory.

In those days SPARC notebooks typically cost several times as much as a desktop workstation so the market wasn't big enough to support multiple suppliers. Tadpole and RDI merged in October 1998 to form Tadpole-RDI.

...Later:- in 2000 Tadpole (whose products at that time included SPARC motherboards and rackmount SPARC systems) sought to expand its presence in the SPARC market by acquiring Cycle Computer (a maker of customer installable SPARC upgrade motherboards). But the original promise from that merger (success in the commercial server market) never took fruit - because Sun's legendary revenue growth hit a brick wall in the first quarter of 2001.

That marked the end of the SPARC compatible market for most oems although it had been long coming.

But then fate intervened - and as a result of the massive military spending in the US which followed 9/11 - Tadpole's SPARC portable business grew rapidly.

I commented on the popularity of SPARC notebooks with our readers in this publication and that did not go unnoticed - because in February 2002 a new name appeared in the SPARC notebook market - with the first of many product generations from Taiwan based Naturetech.

Naturetech quickly established distribution channels in Europe and the US. But it was the growing military market in the US where it found greatest success - with luggable portables which were customized by its US resellers SunnyTech and NextCom.

In January 2004 - 64 bit SPARC notebooks broke the $2,000 price barrier.

In Q1 2005 - SPARC Product Directory revealed that the #1 product category viewed by SPARC readers in February 2005 was this page, SPARC notebooks, followed by rackmount servers, memory and military servers.

In June 2005 - Sun said it would soon launch its own brand of SPARC notebooks. These were based on models from Naturetech and Tadpole.

In August 2005 - General Dynamics acquired Tadpole. And, as predicted at the time, the product line disappeared from view into various military programs and hasn't been updated or marketed to the civilian market since.

In 2006 it seemed that competition in the SPARC notebook was at an end. But in November Accutech Ultrasystems launched a range of SunRay notebooks (with end-user pricing around $950 to $1,050) which offered a new route for users to get the benefits of the SPARC / Solaris environment at a much lower price than previously possible.

This 15 year unrolling story of the SPARC notebook market is paused for now. But it will be updated according to events.


About the author

This article was written by Zsolt Kerekes who, as editor of the SPARC Product Directory, had direct contact with every SPARC oem worldwide during the period 1992 to 2000 (and before in the period 1987 to 1991 was technical manager of a SPARC oem in the military / defense market)

article copyright ACSL (1992 to 2008).

PS - That means marketers in Sun too!
Snapshots from SPARC notebook history
click below to see archived versions of our SPARC notebook directory pages

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