There's life in the old dog yet.

There's life in the old dog yet.

Describing a new range of ultra small form factor PCs as 'notebook replacement' was a clever marketing ploy by Acer. It is an attempt to challenge perceptions that portable PCs are well on the way to confining desktops to the history books.

And although I thought it was tongue-in-cheek when I first heard the claim, it is clear Acer still sees life in the old desktop dog yet. Marketing director, Raymond Vardanega, told a group of journalists last week that desktops (along with notebooks and LCD TVs) are one of three pillars of growth the company is concentrating on.

There is some justification for making that bet when you think about it. For a start, although desktop sales are in decline and everybody is waxing lyrical about notebook growth, the big boxes still outsold their more portable cousins by almost two to one last year when you look at global IDC numbers (150 million to 81 million).

While this is thanks largely to sales in developing nations, the PC is alive and well in this and other mature markets too. This is partly because it continues to evolve (the key to survival for just about every living thing and invention since time began). The only major difference in the aesthetics of PC designs for many years was whether the box was beige, black or grey. Advances in technology mean that is now changing rapidly.

The launch of Microsoft XP Media Center Edition saw manufacturers trying (albeit failing, so far) to create a PC stylish enough to sit in the AV stack; the latest versions of Xbox and PlayStation are essentially computers; the desktop continues to shrink; the move to mobility has spawned notebooks, tablets, and now ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs); and even mobile phones are offering users a range of computing features.

So where will it all end? Anybody looking to pick an outright winner is probably barking up the wrong tree. The market is fracturing as designers continue to find ways of targeting more specific groups of users with new features. Of course, not all of them have been successful. The tablet PC has still failed to gain any significant market share despite earning a Bill Gates seal of approval several years ago.

The most likely outcome is that most (if not all) of these form factors have a long shelf life yet and will be joined by new ones along the way. In my opinion, there are still too many players in the local PC market and all but a few will be forced to back some of the more niche form factors. We have already seen this start to happen with Samsung pulling out of the local notebook market to concentrate on UMPCs and LG withdrawing from retail to focus on its commercial laptop business.

Market leaders such as HP, Acer and Dell will keep their fingers in as many PC pies as possible. Will the mini PC replace the notebook? For most users (including Acer's Vardanega) the answer is a resounding 'no', but it does give resellers another option in the sales pitch and that can never be a bad thing.

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