Computer convergence will be highlighted at CES

Tablets, laptops, smartphones are on a collision course

After sparring for users' attention and wallets, PCs and mobile devices are starting to converge in size, style and how they are used.

That convergence will start to play out at the International CES show in Las Vegas next week.

"Convergence, although talked about for 20 years, is finally happening now," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "Users want a consistent experience between their phone, tablet, PC, TV, car and other future devices ... The markets are on a collision course."

There's a mashup of devices -- a blurring of the lines between laptops, tablets, smartphones and, even desktops. Tablets are getting smaller but also using separate keyboards. Phones are becoming more powerful. Laptops are becoming touch-enabled. And desktop-like machines are expected to arrive with touch capabilities, as well.

There already are hybrid machines - part laptop and part tablet - on the market.

"At some point, we may no longer know where one type of device begins and the other leaves off," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "We are in the midst of mashing together laptops and tablets, and getting close to doing the same with small tablets and large smartphones. There is a lot of creativity going on at the moment because we have too many device types."

Next week, PC makers, along with the world's biggest mobile phone and tablet makers, will gather at CES, a major annual tradeshow where companies often announce new products.

Industry analysts say this convergence is likely to gain steam at next week's event.

"We're definitely seeing convergence between devices and capabilities as we move forward," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "Smartphones and tablets can do things that we needed full-fledged laptops to do several years ago. And they're doing these things via touchscreen -- no keyboard or mouse needed. We're also seeing these same touchscreen capabilities being built into traditional laptops and, soon, even table-like computing devices."

Olds sees laptops, which have been dropping in sales, becoming more like tablets, which have been dominating the PC market.

"The addition of touchscreens to small form-factor laptops makes them much more competitive with tablets," he added. "Laptops are also doing a much better job on other important factors like boot time and battery life. Overall, I think that we'll see these markets tend to blend together, with the main differences being price and operating systems."

However, laptops aren't the only devices changing in this scenario. Enderle said tablets are becoming more like laptops with the addition of wireless keyboards.

The price gap between tablets and their more expensive laptop cousins should shrink, Olds said. "As tablets add more sophisticated capabilities and laptop vendors drop prices to stay in the competitive mix, we're going to see them come closer together," he added.

This convergence, according to Moorhead, will make it easier to use our computers no matter where we are and what we're doing.

"Convergence enables a continuous computing experience, meaning we can do what we want, where we want, when we want, and how we want," he added. "This provides a degree of freedom, empowerment, and productivity no generation has ever seen before."

This convergence could also be a boon for the struggling PC market, Moorheard noted. With changes coming to the traditional laptop and desktop, consumers and enterprises could start to turn more of their attention back to those markets.

According to Enderle, the next several years should yield some interesting technological changes.

"We are still just at the start of this process and it could take up to five years for it to fully complete, or it could be over in as little as two even more tumultuous ones," he said.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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