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PC Expo: Where are the PCs?

They're still there -- but suddenly the personal computing world is becoming much more than stand-alone computers. Here's why
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

Reports of the death of the personal computer at PC Expo this week have, as usual, been greatly exaggerated. Despite the rise of new technologies, including wireless PDAs, Internet appliances and smart phones, the PC will remain, in the foreseeable future, at the centre of the computing universe.

But that doesn't mean its role is not changing.

In fact, this year's PC Expo marks the beginning of what will become a shift in the way PC makers talk about the desktop computer. No longer is the desktop PC a stand-alone device.

"I think the speeds-and-feeds era is over. It's about the overall user experience now," said Carl Everett, senior vice president for Dell's Personal Systems Group.

Even processor brands, such as Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, that consumers trust when they buy new computers will become less important over time, he said.

"The real issue is what you build around (the PC) that makes the experience."

The PC is still the centre of tech universe, but it will no longer be a stand-alone device. Most of the top PC makers, Dell included, are now looking at the PC as the center of a bundle of hardware that include cell phones, pagers, personal digital assistants, as well as software and services that can be provided to customers. The bundle can be customised to fit the needs of consumers, small businesses and larger corporations.

Many of these packages will be delivered to business customers first. However, this sales strategy will expand over time to deliver similar bundles to consumers.

Executives from Dell, IBM, Compaq and other PC makers interviewed at the show indicated plans to begin delivering similar PC bundles.

"I think that model is emerging. (For consumers) it's a matter of getting broadband ... in place," said Ed Petrozelli, vice president of marketing for desktop and net devices at IBM's Personal Systems Group. For businesses, "I think that it's a matter of getting the right applications and the right alliances in place."

Customised services, he said, are six months to one year away from being "a big hit."

Compaq is working to offer services such as custom-configured PCs that ship the next day after an order is placed.

However, the company recognises, "There isn't a customer today that buys just a PC," said Kyle Ranson, vice president and general manager of Compaq's Transactional Business Segment. "They buy the PC and all the stuff that goes with it."

It's this "stuff" that has PC makers working to change the way they do business with customers.

Dell believes that broadband Internet access in combination with home networking technology, especially wireless, will be one of the biggest catalysts in changing the way consumers use PCs.

Wireless "allows the computer to organise itself around the person," instead of that person organising him or herself around the PC, Everett said.

The mobility provided by notebook PCs will also act as an agent of change. Dell's Everett believes many companies will begin outfitting employees with mobile notebook PCs that can also be used at home for Web surfing or connecting to the corporate network via a virtual private network -- all via a wireless home network and broadband Internet connection resident on a desktop PC.

Networked computing appliances, which rely on the PC as an Internet gateway, and cellular phones with Internet access capabilities, will also play a role here, numerous PC maker executives said.

The PC gave birth to the Internet. Now junior is leaving home, and it's nowhere more obvious than at PC Expo, where PCs are the last thing you'll find. Click to learn which gizmos will leave your PC keyboard gathering dust. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment from Jesse Berst.

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