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Powerful portables

A report from inside the consumer-electronics pipeline

By Noel C. Paul Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2001



LAS VEGAS

Is the era of the personal computer over?

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That was the pivotal question at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, a glittery Las Vegas event that has become something of an industrial summit among the digitally informed. It's also an opportunity to speculate about which products will become the technological "necessities" of the next decade.

Different theories abound, but two key statistics are particularly revealing: PC sales dropped last year for the first time in history, while sales of semiconductors, the building blocks of computers, grew 37 percent.

Together, the data form a telling portrait of an industry moving ahead full steam while its most-lauded member, the PC, seems to have sputtered.

The high profile given personal digital assistants (PDAs), wireless phones, MP3 players, pagers, and other portable devices at the show illustrates today's top electronics trend: PC functions are dispersing into smaller, wireless gadgets.

And that trend is only likely to accelerate. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, sales of mobile electronics from manufacturers to dealers are expected to reach 10.5 billion in 2001 - an 8 percent increase. And the New York research firm

Yankee Group predicts American shoppers will spend as much as $50 billion a year using portable Internet-access devices by 2005, up from $100 million in 2000.

That portables are robbing desktop PCs of market share is indisputable. Still, even makers of wireless devices hesitate to predict the end of personal computing.

"PC sales have slowed not because [PCs are] useless, but because they work so well," says Jed Kolko, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "People are satisfied with what they have and aren't looking for upgrades."

Mr. Kolko and others prefer the term "PC-plus" to describe the current state of technology. It's a scenario where personal computers still store and move massive amounts of data, but outsource many of their old tasks to other tools.

Exuberant after a year of high sales, portables manufacturers still face significant hurdles. Wireless phone networks in the US, for example, rarely offer national coverage, and navigating the Web on portable screens is a bit like touring Paris on a tricycle.

Portable computing's greatest challenge: building one device that easily serves as an address book and phone, while providing e-mail and full Internet access. Without it, early adopters will remain weighed down by several rectangular tech toys hanging from their belts.

Early efforts at convergence include a dual phone and MP3 player from Sprint, and Ericsson's R380 phone, which flips open to reveal a horizontal display screen that serves as a PDA.

But such products are a long way from going mainstream.

Living digitally on portable devices alone may not be possible in the next few years. So companies have begun to scale back their expectations. This year's best-selling phones and PDAs will not likely offer additional perks other than e-mail and basic Internet.

"We need to take baby steps and educate the customer on what these things can do," says Randy Roberts, director of emerging technology for Nokia.