Cheap, ultraportable computers - dubbed Lilliputian laptops by some - are emerging as a driving force in the PC market, helping to propel sales despite fears that global economic uncertainty will stymie information technology spending. Barely a year after Taiwanese manufacturer Asus put a rocket under low-cost notebooks with the launch of its $500 Eee PC, almost every major computer maker has stormed retail outlets with alternatives of their own.
Dell became the latest entrant earlier this month with the launch of its lightweight contender, and market researcher IDC reported on Friday all of that activity had had a big impact on global computer sales.
In Western Europe alone during the quarter to June 30, a 60 per cent year-on-year rise in shipments of ultraportable computers was enough to spur 23 per cent growth in the total personal computer market.
That was up from 12 per cent for the same quarter a year ago and led IDC to nudge its growth forecast for worldwide PC shipments in 2008 up from 15.2 per cent in June to 15.7 per cent.
If IDC is right, that rise would push the number of personal computers sold this year past the 310 million mark.
The surge in second-quarter, low-cost laptop sales backed up research from Gartner last month that estimated sales of mini-notebook computers - devices with screens 5 to 10 inches across - would hit 5.2 million units this year and 8 million in 2009.
"The demand for mini-notebooks will be driven by several factors: by their small form factor and small screen, their light weight, their price, their ease of use and their basic, but sufficient, PC functionality," Gartner research director Annette Jump said at the time.
"Potential users are likely to include both first-time buyers seeking a low-cost, introductory PC as well as experienced users seeking a low-cost second or third PC for themselves or a relative."
IDC vice-president Bob O'Donnell last week concurred and said the advent of low-cost laptops and other new form factors such as super-slim desktop computers, as well as falling product prices, were bringing about significant changes to the PC market.
"The right way to gauge the success of consumer PCs is no longer the adoption rate of households with PCs, or even the number of PCs per household, but rather the number of machines per individual," Mr O'Donnell said.
"The increasing form factor diversity in notebooks as well as desktops is enabling people to justify multiple PC purchases."
The shift is not lost on manufacturers and Hewlett-Packard, Acer, Lenovo, Asus and Dell are just some of the companies that are racing to offer low-cost notebooks in a bid to encourage consumers to buy more than one piece of computing gear.
The arrival of Intel's fast but small Atom processor this year should see the arrival of yet another consumer toy - mobile internet devices to sit in the market between smartphones and ultraportable laptops, much to the vendors' delight.
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