Laptops, netbooks surge. Is the desktop PC headed for extinction?

Disclaimer – Some day my comments are going to get me in trouble… Remember, once you are on the internet – you are there forever. This newspaper article contains comments of mine about Netbook technology. Publication date was January 2009.

STEVE LAMBERT
THE CANADIAN PRESS

WINNIPEG – Pity the poor desktop. Its bulky mass, its heavy cables and its stationary existence have turned it, in the eyes of many consumers, into something of a brontosaurus awaiting extinction.

With more people opting for laptops, as well as the even-smaller, even-more-portable netbook, the future doesn’t look bright for desktops. But some experts say it’s too soon to start carving a gravestone.

The tipping point occurred last fall, when global market intelligence firm IDC announced that for the first time, laptop sales outstripped desktop sales to both consumers and businesses. Amazon.com’s list of 10 bestselling computers earlier this month contained not a single desktop.

Stores are seeing the trend as well.

“There has definitely been a noticeable shift toward the laptop and mini-nets (netbooks),” said Susan Shannon, general manager of the Staples outlet in downtown Winnipeg.

There are several reasons for the shift. While consumers have always liked the idea of portable computers, laptops used to be a lot more expensive while offering smaller screens, much smaller hard drives and slower processors.

Not any more. Laptops have narrowed the gap both in terms of technology and price. And the growth of Wi-Fi in restaurants, coffee shops and other locations means people can use laptops almost anywhere.

“I think the advantages of having a desktop are disappearing,” said Prasad Gowdar, a consumer electronics commentator and chief information officer with PCM Interactive Inc., a Winnipeg-based Internet marketing firm.

Even at home, people want the ability to surf the web on the couch or in bed instead of being tied to a desktop, Gowdar said, and the price difference between a laptop and desktop with similar features is now usually only a couple of hundred dollars.

While laptops are now outselling desktops, the real growth in computer sales is among netbooks. With screens of between seven and 10 inches, and with prices starting at around $300, netbooks make laptops look bulky and expensive.

Netbooks offer fewer features than a laptop - they have no CD or DVD drive - and contain tiny hard drives usually in the 4 to 8 GB range. But for people who just want to surf the web or check email while on vacation or at the cottage, they are a quick-booting, easy alternative.

“We can change hotel bookings if we’re on the road, play music on it, play the odd video,” said Brad Trupp, a software developer whose netbook is the most portable of the 11 computers he and his family have in their suburban home.

“It’s the size of a paperback.”

IDC forecasts worldwide netbook shipments this year to double from last year’s total of five million units - the fastest-growing segment of the market. Desktop shipments, meanwhile, are expected to drop by 7.2 per cent.

Despite the gloomy outlook for desktops, experts say there will always be a market for them. They can accommodate large screens and ultra-fast video cards - a must for video game enthusiasts, Gowdar said.

There’s also the corporate sector, which might prefer keeping most employee computers stationary.

“I can tell you for security reasons, corporations are not happy about their data disappearing out the door,” Gowdar said.

“I cannot see many corporations saying ‘hey listen, come in, plug your laptop in, work on what you have to, and then walk out with God knows what data on it.”’

Trupp agrees that desktops have their place.

When he brings work home, he prefers to work with his desktop’s full-size keyboard and 22-inch screen. He also says the machine’s larger memory and faster processor make it easier for him to test new software programs still in development as part of his job.

“The desktop will never truly die, but its market will become more specialized,” he said.