When trying to estimate whether or not notebook shipments will overtake desktops shipments, most IT analysts agree that its no longer a question of if, but when, it will happen.
While analysts disagree on the exact quarter or year when this crossover will occur, they do agree that the result will mark a significant shift in the way consumer and commercial users think about computing.
The major vendors—Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, Toshiba and Apple—are beginning to shift their strategies to meet the needs of this new market with an emphasis on technology, style and ease of use.
"Its been pretty drastic so far and you can see it in the types of form factor that are out there now," said Richard Shim, an analyst with IDC who follows the notebook market.
"Were seeing a great variety out there with smaller notebooks, tablets, 13- and 14-inch portable PCs, 14- and 15-inch notebooks and just a very wide variety of form factors… There are a lot of things that manufactures are doing now and they have become much more flexible from a design standpoint."
In terms of the crossover, Gartner has found that the shift has already happened—at least in the North America market. In the third quarter of 2007, notebook shipments accounted for 52 percent of the market, while desktop shipments totaled 48 percent, said Mikako Kitagawa, an analyst with the Stamford, Conn., research firm.
Within the North American market, Kitagawa said that the consumer side is driving most of the sales and she predicted that the fourth quarter will widen the gap between desktops and notebooks thanks to the holiday shopping season. While all laptop prices will continue to drop in 2008, there will be less of a price shift in the commercial market.
"The commercial market is less price sensitive and IT departments have a lot of other considerations when buying hardware, so the cheapest is not necessarily the one they are looking for," Kitagawa said.
By contrast, IDC offers a more conservative outlook. The Framingham, Mass., research firm found that U.S. notebook shipments will stay at about 49 percent in both the third and fourth quarters of 2007. By the end of 2008, those numbers should change for good with notebooks accounting for about 54.6 percent of U.S. PC shipments and desktops for about 45.4 percent.
When looking at the numbers, Shim said a better than expected holiday shopping season in the fourth quarter of 2007 could push notebooks past desktops, but the crossover will likely happen in the first or second quarter of 2008.
While the debate about whether to buy a PC with Microsofts Windows Vista operating system or stay with XP is important, Shim said most users are more concerned about other issues, such as wireless technology and battery life.
While its no surprise that the North American market has made this crossover, both IDC and Gartner found that emerging markets such as China, Eastern Europe and India are quickly closing the gap with mature markets. By late 2009, Shim said the worldwide market will catch up with the U.S. market with notebooks outshipping desktops. The Gartner survey places the laptop crossover closer to 2010.
"On a worldwide basis, things have changed much more rapidly than expected and part of this has to do with the fact the ASPs [average sales prices] have fallen faster and theres a lot of foreign currency that is more highly valued than the U.S. dollar," said Shim.
The one upside to the new emphasis on notebooks is that vendors such as HP, Dell and Lenovo are remaking their desktop portfolios to keep these machines relevant. Unlike in years past, vendors are starting to design desktops with the same sort of care that they dedicate to laptops.
"Desktops now are much smaller, more stylish and still offer some better performance advantages compared to notebooks," Shim said.