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Is this the end of the standalone computer?

Brian O'Connell
by Brian O'Connell, MainStreet contributor

NEW YORK (BankingMyWay) — Are laptop and other “standalone” computers going the way of the duck-billed platypus?

Recent industry studies say yes.

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While U.S. technology consumers still cling to their standalone devices, they’re really not using them, and within years, laptops and desktop computers may be relics, much like the home telephone and office fax machine.

First up is Framingham, Mass.-based Interactive Data Corp., which reports that the number of tablet computers sold worldwide should reach 190 million in 2013 (up from an earlier forecast of 172 million devices.)

By 2017, tablet computers may actually overtake standalone computers, at least in sales volume. IDC estimates total global tablet shipments will hit 353 million that year, compared with an early forecast of 382 million personal computer shipments.

"One in every two tablets shipped this quarter was below 8 inches in screen size, says Jitesh Ubrani, research analyst for IDC’s Tablet Tracker survey. “And in terms of shipments, we expect smaller tablets to continue growing in 2013 and beyond. Vendors are moving quickly to compete in this space as consumers realize that these small devices are often more ideal than larger tablets for their daily consumption habits."

Google Android and Apple tablets are expected to dominate the consumer technology landscape, with an estimated 49 percent and 46 percent market share, respectively, this year, IDC adds.

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Another study, this one from the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association, says that U.S. technology users are shying away (but not throwing away) their laptop and desktop devices.

The CEA says that in homes that have a laptop, 43 percent of smartphone owners and 46 percent of tablet owners are “using them less.” But the group adds that “very few users” have shed their laptops, with only 1 percent of smartphone users and 2 percent of laptop users “stopping the use of their laptops altogether.”

A deeper look at the CEA figures show smartphone and laptop users using those devices as replacements for other devices:

  • 78 percent of smartphone and tablet computers owners use them as the primary means of taking a photo.
  • 74 percent use their smartphones to take videos.
  • 69 percent use their devices to get directions.
  • 62 percent use them to read e-books.
  • 59 percent use them to listen to music (which has already cut into the sales of music-only electronic devices).

Consumers still use laptops to watch videos, shop online and browse the Internet, the CEA study reports. MP3 players, portable game devices and camcorders are the devices smartphone and tablet users have largely stopped using.

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“Smartphones and tablets have enriched, diversified and transformed the ecosystem of consumer electronics,” says Rhonda Daniel, senior manager of market research for the CEA. “As a result, mobile-device owners are re-proportioning the time they spend using other standalone devices. While many single-function devices continue to play a distinct and relevant role in our digital lives, consumers are gravitating toward connected mobile devices able to perform multiple functions.”

Functions, it would seem, that are elbowing laptops, camcorders, music players, and desktop computers out of the way — eventually for good.

Brian O’Connell has 15 years of experience covering business news and trends, particularly in the financial, health care and career management sectors. He has written 14 books and appeared on CNN, Fox News, CNBC, C-Span, Bloomberg, CBS Radio and other media outlets and in such publications as The Wall Street Journal and The Street.com. He is a former Wall Street bond trader.