After decades as the computer of choice for homes and businesses, the desktop PC is being pushed to the scrap heap by its smaller, nimbler sibling: the laptop.
They've been around since the early 1980s, but portable computers are finally taking over. Last year, for the first time, American consumers bought more of them than desktops. Sixteen of the 20 bestselling PCs on Amazon.com this holiday season were laptops.
U.S. corporations are expected to make laptops the majority of their computer purchases in 2008. BNSF Railway Co. already has. Of the 4,000 Dell Inc. computers it bought last year, 60% were laptops, so rail inspectors could file reports from their trucks and other employees could work from home.
"They were in a totally tethered world, and now they have no tethering at all," said Jeff Campbell, the Fort Worth company's chief information officer.
Faster, cheaper technology is behind the most sweeping change the computer industry has seen in a generation. Buying a computer that can be spirited away in a briefcase or backpack no longer requires a big sacrifice in performance, storage or money.
Through common devices called docking stations, users can connect their laptops to external monitors, keyboards and mice while seated at a desk, then eject them and work from a coffeehouse, library, airplane or living room.
The surge in laptop sales is also fueled by the pervasiveness of wireless networks in homes and public hangouts. Having Internet connections everywhere makes laptops much more useful.
Parents and kids consult laptops for quick facts at the dinner table as they once did with encyclopedias. Cocktail-party hosts fire them up to amuse with the latest YouTube video or television show. Workers plop them down on the road and connect to the office without missing a beat.
And sales are expected to accelerate as devices such as the iPhone and tablet PCs pack more power and utility into ever-smaller packages.
"It's not really a computer anymore," said Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. "It's a companion, it's your memory, it's your teacher and your entertainer."
For something celebrated for being light, the laptop sure is propping up the computing industry. Analysts say U.S. laptop sales rose 21% in 2007 to 31.6 million, while desktop sales slumped nearly 4% to 35 million. Overall, laptops are still underdogs, but they're expected to account for the majority of U.S. computer sales in 2008 and of worldwide sales in 2009.
By 2011, research firm IDC expects portable computers to constitute 66% of all corporate PCs sold, up from 40% in 2006, and 71% of all consumer PCs sold, up from 44%.
Vicki Halphide, a mother of two in Laguna Niguel, bought her first laptop, an Apple Inc. MacBook, in November. As she moves around her house, she carries the Mac under one arm and her 10-month-old, Danielle, under another. It lets her perform many of the tasks that the Dell desktop sitting in a bedroom does, but in new places: She does her Christmas shopping while standing in the kitchen and checks family finances in the living room.
"It's easier to find more stolen moments," she said.
The computing industry has buzzed about a laptop revolution for decades. But portable computers were slow to gain popularity because they weren't very portable. One of the first on the market, in 1982, weighed in at 23.5 pounds, nearly three times the average weight of today's laptop. They also didn't perform well compared with the desktop yet cost more.
The computer and semiconductor industries typically put better components in desktop PCs, then scaled them down for laptops. By about 2002, however, laptops began to hit a design wall -- the faster chips and bigger hard drives were burning up too much energy.
Internal fans could not keep laptop components cool enough. Despite its name, the laptop got so hot it couldn't be used on users' laps.
But that all began to change in 2003 when Intel Corp. introduced its Centrino technology: a microprocessor and multi-function chips built specifically for the portable computer.
Although not as fast as desktop PC processors initially, Centrino's claim to fame was that it came with a wireless Internet connection in the core hardware, making laptops better able to jump on the Internet anywhere there is a hot spot. The number of hot spots, many free, has exploded in the last few years.
With users liberated from having to plug their laptops into phone jacks, the promise of mobile computing finally was realized. Computer manufacturers began to pressure component makers to make products that used less power, and they responded with technological breakthroughs that let laptops run programs quickly without burning too hot.
But price has been the biggest driver in the jump in laptop sales. Desktops have always cost less than laptops, because it's more complicated and more expensive to make compact components for a small machine. In the last four years, though, the price difference has narrowed. Although desktop computer prices have remained relatively flat (buyers today get more bang for their buck), the average price of a laptop has fallen more than 20% as the worldwide market for laptops has opened up and more competitors jump in. Already, some bare-bones laptops can be found for less than $500. The nonprofit One Laptop Per Child initiative is one of several groups trying to bring the price of a portable computer down to $100.
With their newfound popularity, laptops are doing for computing what cellphones did for talking -- bringing the activities into public places. With that, new social norms and rules of etiquette are emerging.
At Ritual Coffee Roasters cafe, a mecca for laptop users in San Francisco, owner Eileen Hassi hired an electrician last spring to disable the electrical outlets. Regulars at the coffeehouse were spending so much time riding the free wireless network -- as many as eight hours at a stretch -- that patrons who wanted simply to sip their lattes couldn't find seats.
You're welcome to work on your laptop here, Hassi explained, "until your battery dies."
Though laptops have become the growth engine for the computer industry, the line continues to blur between phones and computers. Hand-held devices such as Apple's iPhone are allowing people to do things they could never do before on a phone, such as listen to music, watch videos and easily surf the Web.
The desire to slim down has led computer makers to create a subsection of laptops known as mini-notebooks or sub-notebooks. Sony Corp., for one, makes a $2,499 version for frequent business travelers that weighs 1.2 pounds and features a 4.5-inch screen. (On the flip side, for programmers and video gamers there are laptops known as desktop replacements, or "luggables," that feature huge processors and screens as wide as 20 inches. They weigh as much as 18 pounds.)
And then there's the tablet PC, a hand-held computer with a touch screen that connects wirelessly to a network. Manufacturers have experimented with the tablet PC over the years, but they're making another push to market them to the sales, education and healthcare fields. Last month Dell introduced the Latitude XT, its first tablet PC for less than $2,500, which provides more than nine hours of battery life.
The financial advisory firm Edward Jones is giving its trainees Toshiba Corp. tablet PCs to enter clients' financial information during home visits.
The tiny computer may get another huge marketing boost this month when Apple, whose iBook injected fashion into the utilitarian-looking laptop market in the late 1990s, holds its Macworld Conference and Expo. Analysts are buzzing that Chief Executive Steve Jobs will introduce his own version of a tablet computer or a mini-notebook at the show.
Laptops could get so small that they become something else. Japan, for example, had its own laptop craze several years ago. But the country is already bypassing the traditional computer as a hub for digital life.
For the last five quarters, computer sales overall have slumped as Japanese consumers have turned to souped-up phones and other devices that plug directly into printers and TVs.
But for now, laptops and U.S. consumers are in the honeymoon stage.
Stacy Libby of Campbell, Calif., considers her laptop a TV-watching companion. The public relations and marketing executive writes a blog about a particular breed of multi-tasker: mothers who like to watch intellectually undemanding television shows while working on their computers.
Good laptop TV: "Oprah," "Ellen," "Ugly Betty" or any reality show. Bad laptop TV: "Lost," "Boston Legal" and "24."
To get her attention, Libby's 3-year-old daughter, Alexa, used to slam down her mom's laptop. But she recently got one of her own: A pink and purple Barbie toy laptop. Now the two of them sit side by side and work.