PCS ARE TAKING TO THE STREETS

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It's an office coup d'etat in the making. A regular workplace revolution.

When is the laptop going to push the desktop off the desk?

With portable computers becoming so much more wallet- and user-friendly, the market for these technological tikes is experiencing a major growth spurt.

There are about 44 million potential portable computer users in the U.S., according to David O'Connor, VP at Zenith Data Systems, Buffalo Grove, Ill. Mr. O'Connor spoke last month at the Lap & Palmtop Exposition in Chicago.

Mr. O'Connor broke the market down into five categories of future users: Heading the list are 15 million "fleet workers," who are not in an office but need portable computer support in the warehouse or on the assembly line. About 10 million "road warriors" take to the road full time, needing a virtual office. Eight million people are "office functionalists" working mainly out of the office but sometimes from home. Almost 6 million people are "corridor cruisers," who go off to business meetings and need their office computers, while 5 million "road runners" spend less time on the road but still need a second office.

"From an advertising point of view, it's certainly a very big market," said exposition founder and President Peter O'Connor. Nearly 40% of all computer sales are now laptop or palmtop models, he said.

Improved technology has changed portables' cost as well as their role in the workplace. "Originally portable computers were just for executives," said Peter O'Connor. Those computers were much more expensive and not very powerful.

"The next wave of growth is the consumer end and multimedia," he said. "Computers are reducing dramatically in size, weight and price." Because they are becoming more affordable and usable, they are appearing more in homes. Zenith announced plans for a portable model with a 14-inch color screen for next year, possibly marking desktop computers as an endangered species.

The next step may be multiple computers and even electronic networks at home.

"It's deja vu," Peter O'Connor said, comparing the computer market with the car industry. It used to be that there was just one family car, like one family computer that everyone shared, he said. But look at driveways; now everyone in the family has their own car, just like they will want their own computer.

And consumers want their computers souped up, with all the extras.

Apple Computer, for example, cannot keep up with the demand for its high-end PowerBooks, he said. "People would rather pay extra to get every bell and whistle added on."

Richard Skews coordinates Technology News.

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