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Will the desktop PC lose out in the device wars?

Remember that awful TV ad for a mobile operator a few years ago, about a businessman stepping out of their office (home) into their office (taxi) and finally reaching their actual office?

The ad wasn’t awful in its production values, just its implications: thanks to mobile technology, everywhere was an office now. But it was and is true. Anyone who’s BlackBerry pinged their way through a dinner party or who checks their iPhone email before getting up in the mornings will know what I mean.

Mobile phones mean we can check email anytime, while laptops/netbooks and 3G dongles mean reading a newspaper on the train to work means you’re simply not working hard enough.

Mobile technology brings us plenty of benefits too, of course, in terms of connecting us with our friends, important information and level 47 of Angry Birds wherever we are. But I’ve been wondering about some other implications of the mobile lifestyle: for the devices that we own and use.

Desktop PC. Laptop. Netbook. Tablet. Smartphone.

If the thrust of modern technology is all about convergence, why do I own one of each of these? And which can I get rid of to slim down my gadget mountain? In short, I think the desktop PC is for the chop, with the netbook next in line if tablets evolve in the right direction.

Why? Well, short of a combination of 3G-brain-implant and augmented-reality contact lenses, nothing’s going to dislodge the smartphone from our pockets anytime soon. But there is real skirmishing afoot for the primary devices used in the home and on the move.

For the last month, I’ve been using a laptop with proper grunt. For the first time ever, in fact. It’s one of those supersized HP Pavilion models with an Intel Core processor, designed not to wheeze like a pensioner when I open up 12 Firefox windows while running Spotify, Skype and Photoshop. Something that can’t be said of my desktop PC – unsurprisingly, given it was bought in summer 2007.

Okay, so relatively-new laptop beats doddery-old desktop – that’s no proof that desktops are for the dumper. But this is where mobility kicks in. Carting the heavy laptop around is a no-no, but I can lug it to the kitchen table, and if required stick it in the car boot if working somewhere else for the day.

It’s a mobile device, but with the power to handle my desktop work. Sorry PC, it’s curtains for you.

What I don’t want to do is sit on the sofa with it, or take it on the train regularly. Which is where the netbook versus tablet battle kicks in. I own a Wi-Fi iPad and a relatively new Toshiba netbook, but as yet, Apple’s table hasn’t managed to kick the Tosh into touch.

The longer I own an iPad, the more uses I find for it beyond its biggest selling point – tweeting and surfing from the sofa. Which, trust me, might not be the focus of Apple’s marketing, but which alone make it worth the outlay. That’s partly an Apple thing – UI and App Store – but partly a tablet-format thing.

Having a slate on your lap is less isolating and – when necessary – more social. Plus it’s instant-on – or at least more instant-on than a hibernating netbook, although Google is promising great things from its Chrome OS on this score.

However, iPad needs a few more things to dislodge the netbook for people like me, who are creating content – a horrible phrase, yes – as well as consuming it. Saving images from the web, editing them and uploading to a website content management system isn’t possible, unless it’s a blogging system with a suitable app.

Plus it can’t do video-calling – something that will presumably be sorted next year with a new model boasting front-facing camera and FaceTime. It can’t multi-task either, although that will definitely be sorted come November with iOS 4.2.

Add these in, and my reasons for owning a netbook start to slip. And for the millions of people who don’t give a stuff for bloggy back-ends and videoconferencing, an iPad – or in the months ahead a rival tablet – is a viable alternative to a netbook.

Laptop, tablet, smartphone? Give it a year.

But what’s interesting in the long term is how the kind of processors currently seen in my laptop filter down to tablets and smartphones. A Core-equipped smartphone connecting wirelessly to standalone keyboards, speakers and monitors in my house? It could be so long laptop then…


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