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Portability on the move in the new PC era

A new generation of computers cloaked in smaller, more stylish guises are moving in on the realm long dominated by the PC.
A visitor looks at computer parts during
A visitor looks at computer parts during the Computex trade show in Taipei.  More than 1,347 companies are attending the 5-day exhibition. Sam Yeh / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

In an age when speedy computing and muscular memory are fast becoming old hat, a new generation of computers cloaked in smaller, more stylish guises are moving in on the realm long dominated by the stodgy PC.

The new computer forms -- from the latest in portable game players and wireless Web surfers, to integrated home entertainment centers -- will be on display this week at Computex, the world's number two computer show, in Taipei.

The list of products featured this year runs from the latest in digital cameras and personal digital assistants (PDAs) to video phones, music players and an entire section of computing devices just for use in the car.

They will share center stage with a slew of increasingly complex add-ons and peripherals, such as cards allowing gamers to compete against each other wirelessly using traditional consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation.

"As products become more commmoditized, one of the challenges for these vendors is to create something unique, to distinguish themselves from the regular box," said Brian Ma, a computer analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC).  "Companies have been making more specialized designs to differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd."

IDC predicts that worldwide sales of traditional desktop PCs -- which have grown non-stop since their introduction in the late 1970s and early '80s -- will peak in major developed markets like the United States around 2009 and then start to decline.

Around the same time, IDC forecasts more nimble laptop computers will overtake their stodgier desktop cousins in unit sales, accounting for 55 percent of the 80 million units expected to ship for the year.  By comparison, desktop models are expected to account for two-thirds of the 60 million units forecast to be shipped this year.

Simultaneously, a new generation of computer-like devices is picking up steam, led by such up-and-comers as smart phones, portable music players, digital cameras and a host of hybrid products combining those and other functions.

IDC predicts that annual mobile phone sales alone will soar to 692 million in 2009, while digital camera shipments will rise to 94 million units next year -- both beating traditional computers in unit sales.

Blurring lines
The blurring of devices, and movement to greater portability, is already creating new rivalries -- and opportunities -- as companies wander outside their traditional realms in search of new business.

PC titans such as Dell and Hewlett Packard Co. have already ventured into the PDA space once dominated by palmOne Inc., which pioneered the device.

In its own outside foray, palmOne recently unveiled a device with built-in wireless and storage features that allows for Web surfing, picture viewing and video and music viewing.

Dell has already moved well beyond its traditional computer business, with a product line that now also features PDAs, portable music players and large-screen televisions.

The world's top mobile phone maker Nokia and consumer electronics giant Sony have both moved into a portable game space once dominated by Nintendo Co. Ltd., while Nokia and mobile phone rival Motorola are selling handset models that look more and more like portable music players such as Apple's wildly popular iPod.

Non-desktop products accounted for about 60 percent of Dell's revenues in the first quarter, compared with just 34 percent in 1998, said David Schmook, vice president of marketing for Asia.

"If you just look at mobility, that's where we see most of the volume in the PC industry going," he said. "We see movement from the traditional deskbound PC to a smattering of different form factors in the mobility line-up."

Within the PC world itself, segmentation -- especially in the increasingly popular laptop realm -- is expected to grow as players like Dell, Sony, Toshiba and Samsung try to distinguish their increasingly similar products.

"It's becoming more like a consumer device, so it needs to be more tailor-made," said Merrill Lynch analyst Tony Tseng.

In a move in that direction, Samsung recently rolled out a super slim, bright red notebook computer that, when carried properly, could resemble a woman's handbag -- as implied in an accompanying photo featuring the model.

"We are starting to see a more consumer-centric thing, especially with notebooks," said IDC's Ma. "There are certain devices that are targeting certain user groups."