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12/7/2006
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Mobile PCs Actually Not So Mobile

Companies and consumers may buy laptops thinking that they're going mobile. But a new study shows that most laptops don't do a lot of traveling.

While American businesses and consumers are increasingly trading in stationary desktops for mobile laptop computers, they're not really hitting the road with them all that often.

Most mobile PCs, although built to be portable, generally are used in only two locations, according to a new study from MetaFacts, a market research firm. Most company-owned notebooks stay put in the workplace, and when they do travel they're generally booted up in hotels, home offices, and client locations.

MetaFacts surveyed 7,321 American computer users, both consumers and business users, and found that the company laptop is being widely outdone by its consumer cousin. The study showed that consumer-owned laptops spend much more time outside their normal work spots. They move from room to room inside the house and are twice as often used in libraries, cybercafes, restaurants, and schools.

Dan Ness, principal analyst at MetaFacts, says notebook computers aren't more mobile simply because the image of being on the go and plugged in at the same time just doesn't live up to reality.

"Part of the reason people get notebooks is for the promise of doing what they want to do wherever they are," says Ness. "But what they want to do isn't what they always end up doing. When they buy [laptops], they think they can do anything they want and get their e-mail and always be in touch anywhere. But there are things that limit that like a lack of widely available Internet connections and the weight and hassle of carrying around a notebook. Americans like convenience. They buy on the promise of convenience, but the reality is that it's better than it used to be but not quite there yet."

IT managers might be surprised—OK, downright dismayed—at what workers are using their company laptops for.

Mobile PCs are used three times more often than desktops for online betting, and twice as often to write blogs, watch DVDs, and access social networking sites, according to the study. Ness says the stats are the same, whether for consumer-owned or company-owned machines.

"Online horse race betting probably isn't in most companies' security policies, but users seem to find a way to get things done that they want to do," says Ness.

Part of it could be that laptop users tend to be a more adventurous lot than desktop users.

The MetaFacts study showed that laptop users are twice as likely to have recently shopped at an Apple or Sony store, and online at BJ's, CompUSA, Borders, Dell, or Costco. They're twice as likely to use handheld GPS systems, iPods, and other MP3 players, as well as digital camcorders.

"They shop at more places. They buy more things," says Ness. "They've got more techy toys than the average desktop user. They represent the movers and shakers more than the stay-at-homes."

Laptop sales also are on the rise lately, while desktop PC sales hit a slump in the annual after-Thanksgiving sales rush.

U.S. desktop sales dropped 7.2% on Black Friday compared to the same day last year, according to market research firm Current Analysis. Notebook sales, however, jumped 51.6% year over year. That's especially noteworthy since notebook sales were up 49% in 2005 compared to 2004.

Ness notes that while desktop computers still outnumber laptops by a ratio of 2-to-1, laptops are increasingly becoming more popular and will soon make a dent in that installed base.

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