Free at last: Consumers opting for online convenience

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iStock photo by Don Nichols Desktop computers are being rendered obsolete by portable devices.

The shift toward electronic devices other than personal computers is continuing, while competition and functionality in the smartphone market intensify.

Portable, mobile and networking devices are gaining traction as consumers adopt newer-technology products, according to information technology research firm Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

Research director Nick Ingelbrecht said early adopters — and, increasingly, mainstream consumers — are walking away from their desktops, freeing themselves from the home-office environment by using a tablet or smartphone to go online in a more comfortable setting.

Household penetration of tablets increased to 17 percent in 2012 from 3 percent in 2010, the Gartner survey reported. Netbooks — a step down in size, power and function from laptops — increased to 14 percent from 7 percent, and e-book readers to 14 percent from 5 percent. Laptops reached 55 percent, up from 40 percent. For the same years, desktop computers remained flat at 60 percent.

The Gartner survey, conducted during July and August, includes responses from more than 8,000 consumers in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Russia, India and China.

In a preliminary report for the quarter ended Dec. 31, Gartner said worldwide shipments of PCs totaled 90.3 million units. That was down 4.9 percent from the comparable 2011 period. The statistics include desktops and mobile PCs, including mini-notebooks, but not tablets such as Apple Inc.'s iPad.

During 2012, PC shipments were 352.7 million units, a 3.5 percent decline from 2011.

Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst for personal computers in Gartner's San Jose, Calif., office, noted a dramatic shift in the device landscape, with PC users shifting to tablets as a primary consumption device rather than replacing their older PCs. Earlier thinking suggested individuals would have both a PC and a tablet as personal devices.

Kitagawa said newer PCs designed for richer applications could lead to high average selling prices.

Gartner said Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., had a worldwide PC market share of 16.2 percent, shipping 14.6 million units, which was 0.5 percent lower than its 2011 fourth-quarter shipments. Analysts said HP apparently gave up a certain margin level to gain market share.

Fourth-quarter market share for Lenovo Group Ltd. of Morrisville, N.C., was 15.5 percent on nearly 14 million units, representing an 8.2 percent gain vs. the comparable 2011 period.

Two manufacturers took a nose dive in the personal computer market.

Shipments by Dell Inc. of Round Rock, Texas, fell 20.9 percent to 9.2 million units. Acer Inc. of New Taipei City, Taiwan, said shipments dropped 11 percent to 8.6 million units.

Meike Escherich, principal research analyst with Gartner's Egham, England, office, said the PC market in Western Europe, excluding tablets, is also in a downward spiral, with 2012 shipments of 58 million PC units down 8.4 percent from the previous year. That was after 2011 Western European PC shipments decreased 14 percent vs. 2010.

Fourth-quarter PC shipments dropped in France by 13.6 percent, in Germany by 11.9 percent and in the U.K. by 0.7 percent.

Agreeing with the trend, Motley Fool, a financial services firm in Alexandria, Va., and other analysts have suggested obsolescence will doom the PC in its current form.

Among possible plastic replacements in the market, a thin client — also known as a lean or slim client — is commonly a low-end computer terminal or program that relies on a server to fulfill its traditional roles and functionality. A traditional, so-called fat client is a computer that takes on these roles by itself.

A thin client can provide a graphical interface to an end user and can help reduce total cost of ownership while keeping most computational services.

Dell has developed a niche product it plans to begin shipping April 8: a series of thin devices incorporating plastics.

Dell's extreme game-oriented laptops have diagonal screen sizes ranging from 14-18.4 inches and, including optional upgrades, cost as much as $3,854. The largest model, the almost-12-pound Alienware M18x, offers 3-D capability.

Dell says the new gaming machines are for "those who want desktop-quality performance but with the flexibility of a laptop." Alienware is Dell's high-performance gaming brand.

For the plastics industry, "the good news is that individuals now have a pantheon of devices," said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. in Wayland, Mass. "At one time, you had two devices: a phone and a computer."

Now with more potential connections, "you become the center of your digital world," Kay said in an interview. Each person can have a single-user device with a single address and human interface.

Use of cloud-based applications opens many avenues. Here are three examples:

c An e-book will remember on what page you stopped reading after you go to a new task.

c From a remote location, a user can monitor and control — and receive alerts from — a smart refrigerator, dishwasher or clothes dryer with embedded 6th Sense Live technology from Whirlpool Corp. of Benton Harbor, Mich.

c Viper Products Co. Inc. of Huntington Beach, Calif., has an application that allows an iPhone user to remotely lock, unlock and start a vehicle through the Apple voice system Siri. As needed, a user could remotely turn off a car's alarm system.

Mobile devices

Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. introduced its Galaxy S4 smartphone at a highly promoted, Broadway-type event March 14 in New York's Radio City Music Hall. The S4, encased in polycarbonate, has a full high-density, super Amoled screen. Amoled stands for active-matrix organic light-emitting diode.

Available in numerous display variations for mobile devices and television sets, the S4 display has an integrated digitizer with a layer that detects touch. That layer is in the screen rather than overlaid. Samsung claims that a super Amoled display reflects five times less sunlight compared with first-generation technology.

Seoul, South Korea-based Samsung has set its sights on overtaking Apple of Cupertino, Calif., in the smartphone category. Apple and Samsung currently are wrangling in federal court over patents.

Initially entering the European market in April, the S4 has a diagonal screen size of 4.99 inches, weighs 4.88 ounces and has a housing depth of about one-third of an inch. By comparison, Apple's aluminum-clad iPhone 5 has a 4-inch screen, weighs 3.95 ounces and has a comparable housing depth.

Reports indicate Samsung is making its Galaxy-model mobile phone and tablets at a low-cost factory in Hanoi, Vietnam, after transferring most related production from China.

Apple is expected in mid-2013 to reach the market with an iPhone 5S and a revamped iPhone 5, both with 4-inch displays, according to the research arm of KGI Financial Services Group of Taipei, Taiwan. Other Apple developments, anticipated during the third quarter, may include an iPad 5 tablet and an iPad mini 2 device. A newly designed MacBook Pro portable computer arrived in February.

Computer-software developer Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., is reportedly testing its own smartphone design and evaluating whether it can differentiate itself in the marketplace. Microsoft has been working with possible Asian suppliers on the project.

Microsoft introduced its own Surface tablet in Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro versions in June. Since 2001, Microsoft has produced its Xbox video game console, so moving into another product category, such as smartphones, would not set a precedent.

Microsoft provides phone-making software to Nokia Oyj of Espoo, Finland; HTC Corp. of Taoyuan City, Taiwan; and Samsung.

Emerging technologies

The Human Media Lab at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, has developed a prototype PaperTab bendable tablet in collaboration with Plastic Logic Ltd. of Cambridge, England, and the research laboratories of Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.

The concept device stores data on flexible sheets of interactive and editable "electronic paper" that a user can place on an actual desk.

The intuitive, interactive design of a PaperTab uses transistor thin-film display and input technologies; computing know-how, including an Intel Core i5 processor; and an electromagnetic tracking system.

Researchers from Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University founded Plastic Logic. In 2008, Plastic Logic opened an organic electronics manufacturing facility in Dresden, Germany, now capable of producing ultralightweight-plastic, 10.7-inch displays.

Organic electronics, also called plastic or polymer electronics, involve electrically conductive, carbon-based polymers and molecules. Examples include poly- acetylene, polyaniline and polythiophene.

In another development, technology for flexible PET-based films may enable PolyIC GmbH & Co. KG of Fürth, Germany, to produce touch-screen displays and controls that use in-mold decoration or labeling.

The technology is now in development with potential PolyIC customers and has the potential to supplant the multilayer touch-screen lamination process, which requires indium-tin oxide materials. A touch screen has a flexible outer membrane with a first conducting surface, a backing surface with a second conductive surface and sensors that detect contact between the two.

PolyIC is a subsidiary of Leonhard Kurz Stiftung & Co. KG, also of Fürth.

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