PC consumers, industry breaking with tradition

Computers: The dominant days of old desktops appear to be numbered as laptops gain favor and newfangled tabletop models hit the shelves.

September 30, 2004|By Crayton Harrison | Crayton Harrison,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The desktop PC, an icon of American computing, is fading into the background.

While the traditional desktop still accounts for about 70 percent of shipments, computer buyers increasingly see it as just one of many options.

Even as manufacturers ship out millions of traditional box-plus-monitor setups, their market dominance is being challenged as never before. Laptop shipments are growing at double the rate of that of desktops, and could grab the lead as soon as 2007.

Prices for laptops are closer than ever to their tethered cousins, so more and more of them are ending up in the hands of personal users, not just corporate road warriors.

"The trend is moving dramatically away from pure desktops to portability as a part of the design of next-generation computers," said Tim Bajarin of industry advisory firm Creative Strategies, who forecast parity in 2007.

But computer makers are hoping to entice consumers with new designs for desktops that fit a variety of different groups' lifestyles, from on-the-go professionals to hip teens. Each has a different idea about what a computer should do, and manufacturers' designs aim to fit each niche.

Said Bajarin, "It's all about the usability, right?"

Even users content with a desktop are looking for style and design as much as for power and performance.

Some are being wooed by back-to-the-past, all-in-one models such as Apple's latest iMac G5, which has its components in the thin space behind its flat-screen monitor. The computer also can be hung from a wall.

Others are appealing to consumers with cool designs. The tiny Austin, Texas, company Digital Lifestyles Group Inc. is hoping teens will like its hip-e, a desktop that sports a funky design and also crams its computing components behind a display. Walt Disney Co. last month introduced its Dream Desk PC, a colorful version of the traditional desktop with Mickey Mouse ears on its monitor.

Like home users, businesses also have a variety of options. Microsoft Corp. has worked with manufacturers to develop the so-called Tablet PC, a hybrid of a notebook computer and a writing slate. Sun Microsystems Inc., meanwhile, has brought back the idea of a "network computer," sticking a monitor on workers' desks that connects to a server for processing power and memory.

The notebook computer came into vogue in 1989, with models by Apple, NEC and Compaq weighing up to 20 pounds. NEC's UltraLite cost $2,795 - almost $4,300 in today's dollars.

Prices have come down considerably since then, but many of the newest laptop designs cost much more than traditional desktops. For example, the cheapest version of Hewlett-Packard's Compaq-brand Tablet starts at $1,649, while a desktop tower with the same memory and a faster processor costs $319.

When a processor maker such as Intel Corp. develops a faster chip, manufacturers typically put it in desktops before they do portable computers - often because configuring a processor for a laptop often takes extra steps, such as adding energy-saving features.

That means PC users still get the latest power and speed at the best price by purchasing a desktop.

That distinction mattered a lot in the 1990s, when the release of each new version of Microsoft's Windows operating system sent users scrambling to upgrade their machines because having the fastest processor allowed them to take advantage of the latest software.

But sheer power is no longer the only factor in computer-buying decisions. Consumers who simply want to surf the Web, check e-mail and write the occasional Microsoft Word document don't really need the latest, fastest processors. And the advent of wireless networking has made laptops more attractive.

Businesses used to consider laptops a necessary expense only for traveling salespeople and the occasional executive. But as prices have fallen, they're seeing the advantage of letting even office-bound workers roam from meeting to meeting with computers in hand.

"The reason why laptops are thriving is the need to get mobile," said Rob Enderle, an independent industry consultant. Workers are asking their employers to increase their laptop purchases, on the grounds that portable computing will boost productivity.

Businesses still prefer desktop computers because they're cheaper and less prone to loss or theft. And wireless technology doesn't make every worker more productive.

"Why pay more for a mobile computer that's not going to be used or needed?" asked David Goldstein, president of Dallas market research firm CMC International.

But as prices for portable computers fall and manufacturers try out new concepts, it's possible to envision a world where traditional desktops no longer hold the majority.

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