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Phones, handhelds may replace laptops

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SAN FRANCISCO, California (Reuters) -- Psst... How about a souped-up handheld computer cell phone combination that not only boasts a camera, surfs the Web, does e-mail, can play digital music and has a calendar, but also makes your toast in the morning?

You can have all of that right now.

Well, all but the toaster part. The point is, handheld computers and smartphones, even digital music players like the very popular Apple iPod, are getting ever more powerful, smaller, and can perform a dizzying array of functions.

These powerful gizmos are even starting to raise questions among electronics makers over how much longer it will be before you can leave your laptop at home as a doorstop and hit the road with only your uber-handheld.

"It's an interesting question that PC makers are contending with," said Tim Bajarin, an analyst at market research firm Creative Strategies. "The industry is trying to figure out what role does the PC continue to play in the digital home of the future."

Devices such as the Treo 600 mobile phone-computer from Palm Inc. unit Handspring, the Clie handheld computer from Sony Corp. , and others from Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., all have either the ability to play digital music MP3 files, play movies, surf the Internet wirelessly, do e-mail, calendaring and more.

"People want their stuff wherever they go," said Rob Enderle, principal of market research firm the Enderle Group.

For example, Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod now has a voice recorder attachment, can store thousands of digital pictures, and allows users to manage contacts, calendar events, to-do lists. It even boasts an alarm clock feature and games.

These are, of course, all things that a new, modestly outfitted laptop computer can do now, but they are cumbersome and heavier to cart around than the handheld.

This move toward greater integration and convergence, also helped along by Moore's Law -- the observation that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months -- is a replay of another trend that's been ongoing for nearly a decade.

For a number of years, a series of laptops known as "transportables," or desktop replacement notebooks, have been available. They weigh anywhere from 8 to 12 pounds and can now have a display up to 17 inches in diameter.

They can do just about everything a desktop can do.

That desire for everything in one place extends beyond having one's documents, PowerPoint presentations, e-mail access, digital music and other content on just a laptop PC.

The same trend that prompted consumers and businesses to flock to the notebook is now hitting users of cellular phones that also have small digital cameras in them.

Analysts say that by next year hybrid camera phones will be able to shoot 1-megapixel pictures suitable for e-mailing to a friend and carry flash attachments.

Within two years, some camera phones will boast at least 2-megapixel picture quality, good enough to print quality 4-inch by 6-inch pictures.

"People were leaving their digital cameras at home because the camera phone is good enough," Enderle said.

And when it comes to the digital living room, if a personal video recorder -- basically a high-capacity computer disk drive with program-recording software -- can wirelessly transmit digital video to a handheld or smart phone and manage your digital library, what need is there for a traditional PC?

"There's a lot of interest competing for that space -- the center of the digital home. What is it going to be? What will it look like?" said Roger Kay, an analyst at market research firm IDC.

As for the uber-handheld computer or smart phone supplanting the laptop any time soon, while the seeds for the debate have been sowed, don't expect it quite yet.

"We're not nearly to the point where road warriors can leave their laptops at home," Bajarin said, noting that he goes Treo-only when he's scooting around Silicon Valley for meetings and needs the phone function and access to e-mail. "We're probably a good 18 months away from that."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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