2010 a 'mixed bag' of devices

Plenty of PC options this year for more choosy consumers and enterprises, but industry voices say intermediate form factors such as slates and netbooks will do well.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

While low-cost devices such as netbooks dominated the PC market in 2009, the year ahead--with a somewhat stabilized economy--will see the market push and consume a variety of hardware form factors.

Among the plethora of options, smaller computing devices or what is known as the "in-between" category--sandwiched between a mobile phone and a traditional notebook--are set to soar, say industry analysts.

Pointing to a "mixed bag of devices" for 2010, Reuben Tan, senior manager of IDC Asia-Pacific's personal systems group, said in a phone interview that "a lot more" personal computing choices will become available as the markets pick up over the course of the year.

In contrast, 2009 was a year when budgets of both consumers and enterprises were limited which favored low-cost systems, he surmised. The global desire to stretch the dollar stimulated sales of netbooks in many countries, even in enterprises.

After years of rosy sales, the PC market worldwide took a turn for the worse at the end of 2008, as the global economic crisis took effect, according to IDC. While shipments both globally and in the Asia-Pacific region turned positive during the third and second quarter of 2009, respectively, latest figures seemed to suggest the industry is indeed making a comeback.

According to Tan, touch-screen tablets or slates, smartbooks, smartphones and other Android-based devices are some categories expected to shine in 2010. "The concept of an in-between device is alive and kicking," he added.

iSuppli analysts Matthew Wilkins and Peter Lin told ZDNet Asia that netbooks and smaller form factors will continue their growth momentum this year. "We’re seeing small laptops become more popular, although much of this is due to netbooks which have offered small form factors at low prices.

"With the 'thin and light' or CULV (consumer ultra-low voltage) laptop developments, notebooks across the price range and with varying levels of performance are also becoming thinner, if not necessarily smaller," they said in an e-mail.

Long battery life is also on the wish list of consumers, thereby propelling CULV-based laptop shipments, added the iSuppli analysts.

"[However,] it's important to remember that there are minimum sizes for laptops where they can still be useful; if you reduce the screen size too far, you begin to negatively impact its ability to run certain applications, or for it to be used in a traditional PC sense," Wilkins and Lin pointed out.

Tablet trance
Noting that 2010 could be the year of the tablet, IDC's Tan said the form factor was "interesting". Tablets, he added, were not new, but there had not been much of a consolidated push in the past.

The tablet fuss, courtesy of Apple, reached a high at the start of the year, with various reports pointing to an event during the last week of January and the device commencing shipment in March.

Sources including former head of Google's China operations Lee Kai-fu and France Telecom executive Stephane Richard also fanned the speculation flames with their views of the launch timing of the Apple tablet.

Vendors such as Toshiba and Microsoft in partnership with Hewlett-Packard also announced plans for a touch-screen tablet device.

Users in current times "are being weaned on smartphones that incorporate touch screens", noted Tan, which makes touch-screen tablets a natural extension of that familiarity. Touch-friendly Windows 7, launched in October 2009, also paved the way for slate-type systems to rise in popularity.

"The timing works well for the tablet to see a resurgence, and it's not really going to hurt this market to have Apple champion this--[it's] definitely going to be good for the image of this form factor," he said.

Elimination of e-readers?
The rise in touch-screen tablets, though, may cause the downfall of another "in" category of devices--e-readers.

According to Tan, Apple's tablet and upcoming similar devices present an alternative to the likes of Amazon's Kindle and Nook from Barnes & Noble. Standalone e-book readers are likely to "morph over time to incorporate all other kinds of functionalities" similar to tablet PCs.

"Functionality-wise, what's going to really see mainstream adoption is something that gives you as many different usage models on as portable a device as possible," said Tan. "If an e-book reader just allows you to read e-books, in a sense that's a little bit constrained in terms of what [users] can do," he explained.

Spotlight on all-in-ones, virtual desktops
In the year ahead, IDC believes more attention will also be showered on all-in-one PCs as well as virtual desktops.

Tan said all-in-one PCs in the past hinged more on the high-end market, and such systems were not as fast in terms of performance. However, there are now very affordable entry-level all-in-one desktops utilizing the Atom processor, while higher-end machines are capable of handling most applications.

With enterprise, the gloomy 2009 held IT managers back from deploying newer technology as they were unsure how their organization would benefit. With IT budgets expected to improve or at least emphasize less on cost-cutting, they are in a better position to explore non-traditional options, he noted.

"With a lot of PCs due for a refresh in the enterprise environment, I think IT managers are starting to look at alternative solutions, and virtual desktops are one of them," said Tan.

Server market on upswing, but trails 2007
On the server end, demand in this category is expect to rebound this year, although expenditure will decline slightly, said IDC Asia-Pacific's director for enterprise hardware, Rajnish Arora.

According to IDC's latest study on the region's server landscape, published in early December 2009, the Asia-Pacific server market in 2010 is expected to grow 9 percent over last year to reach 1.47 million units. Expenditure-wise, the market analyst predicts a year-on-year decrease of 8.2 percent, which is a pale shade of the US$8.7 billion regional server spend in 2007.

The server growth, said Arora, is likely to be driven by factors including an increase in virtualization with the restoration of IT budgets. Also contributing will be server refresh programs to take advantage of new processors and the release of Microsoft's Windows Server 2008 and Exchange 2010.

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