Worst PC sales slump ever? Not for 'netbooks'

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This year could see the sharpest drop in the PC industry ever, according to research firm Gartner. This prediction kicked off a week that saw the global recession deepen, the Dow dip below 7000, Apple reveal a yawn-inspiring new hardware lineup, Microsoft still racing to replace its underperforming Vista with Windows 7, and job cuts hit tech companies around the world.

But the PC market is not all doom and gloom.

Yes, Gartner expects PC shipments to plummet 11.9 percent in 2009. That would make it a much steeper decline than the current record, when the bursting dot-com bubble let PC sales slip 3.2 percent in 2001.

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Yet one kind of PC is ready for takeoff. Shipments of the pint-sized and portable "netbooks" could jump by 80 percent this year to 21 million units, Gartner says. The Consumer Electronics Association expects a similar leap in netbook sales.

Netbooks will "cushion the overall PC market slowdown, but they remain too few to prevent the market's steep decline," says Gartner's report. "Mature markets continue to be the primary consumers of [netbooks] but as prices continue to fall, they are likely to attract increasing numbers of emerging market buyers."

In case you've not heard of netbooks, they are small laptops with nine- to 10-inch screens. They're inexpensive, often hovering below $400. Most are designed to do little more than connect to the Web, hence their name. Originally marketed to developing areas and budget-conscious travelers, the term took on a glamorous life of its own last year. Housewives wanted them as secondary or kitchen-counter computers. Businessmen picked them up as beefy PDAs.

Taiwanese companies, in particular, are betting on netbooks to ease the falling computer market, according to a recent AP article. The island, which makes 85 percent of all laptops, hosts two of the most successful netbook-makers:

Acer Inc., the world's second-largest laptop vendor, was initially dismissive of the AsusTek models as cheap knockoffs but soon followed suit. Last year Acer and AsusTek dominated the world netbook market, with each selling about 5 million units - a combined share of more than 90 percent.

And, as a sign of where netbooks are going, earlier this week, Andrew drooled over the new Touch Book. He says that this imaginative combination of a tablet PC in a netbook's shell could be as important for netbooks as the iPhone was for phones, the Tivo was for TVs, and the Roomba was for robots. You can find that article here.

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