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The end of the PC as we know it?

A new path for electronics manufacturers

Say good-bye to traditional notions of a PC company. Times are changing with many PC manufacturers venturing into the booming consumer electronics market, according to the chief executive at one of the world's largest semiconductor makers.

The result is a home computing environment that will be more tightly tied into areas, such as entertainment, that were once considered the domain of consumer electronics companies.

"The computer manufacturers are all going into the consumer electronics space," said Scott McGregor, the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Philips Semiconductor, which supplies chips to both computer makers and consumer electronics companies.

The blurring distinction between the PC and consumer electronics industries is a trend that has been under way for a couple of years, led by the release of Apple's iPod music player in 2001 and the entry of consumer electronics companies, like Sony, into the PC market. Cellular handset makers, like Nokia and Sony Ericsson, have also played their part, boosting the capabilities of handsets with features like MP3 playback and increasing their ability to be connected with PCs and the Internet.

In May, Gateway raised eyebrows among analysts by announcing plans to offer a range of consumer electronics devices, including Microsoft's Xbox game console, flat-panel LCD (liquid crystal display) televisions and home theatre systems, while it also works to build its enterprise computing and service businesses.

Other computer vendors are expected to push into the market for consumer electronics, including Dell, which is expected to begin selling its own line of LCD TVs towards the end of the year.

At the heart of this shift in the nature of PC companies is the widening popularity of digital media, increased connectivity among consumer electronics devices, and the growing reach of broadband internet access. In response to customer demand, LCD TV sets will be produced that offer internet access, wireless network connectivity and include memory-card slots that allow users to view pictures taken using digital cameras.

One such vendor is Toshiba, which has announced a range of flat-panel television sets in Japan that incorporate an IEEE1394 interface and memory card slots for Smart Media, Secure Digital (SD), Multimedia Card (MMC) and Memory Stick as well as Ethernet connectivity to allow for firmware upgrades. The first planned firmware upgrade for the TV sets includes a web browser that will allow users to surf the internet from their TVs.

Another company that has led the development of consumer electronics products that offer capabilities more often associated with PCs is Sony. The company last week introduced its PEGA-VR100K video recorder, which can be connected to a television and contains a television tuner and connectors for a satellite receiver or DVD player. The PEGA-VR100K can record video in MPEG4 format on a Memory Stick card. The recorded video, between 250 minutes and 1,000 minutes on a 1G-byte Memory Stick, can be played back on a Clie personal digital assistant (PDA) from Sony.

"We believe that there's a change going on in consumer electronics, that in the past people thought of them as isolated boxes," McGregor said. "That's not going to be true any more."

Another reason for the convergence of the consumer electronics and PC industries is the continued strength of consumer demand for such products, even though corporate demand has remained soft in recent years. Recognising that consumers are still willing to spend money on new products, computing hardware makers have been quick to respond by developing new digital cameras, MP3 players, and home PCs designed to operate as entertainment systems.

One consumer electronics company that has not shied away from making a push into the computer market is Teac based in Tokyo.

Teac unveiled its TMM-2020 home entertainment PC at the Internationale Funkausstellung show in Berlin, which ended last week. Based on a 1GHz C3 processor from Via Technologies Inc. that does not require a noisy cooling fan, the TMM-2020 runs Microsoft's Windows XP operating system and is designed to fit into a TV or stereo cabinet, according to a statement. It can be operated using a remote control or infrared keyboard and allows users to record television shows, watch DVDs or surf the Internet.

"In the longer term, we're going to see more and more of these devices being developed," said Richard Brown, Via's associate vice president of marketing.

Convergence between the consumer electronics and PC industries appears to be moving quickly but Brown cautioned that there's still a long way to go. While consumer electronics companies have to adapt to the technology integration and pricing pressures of the PC industry, PC makers will have to get used to working with many different types of devices rather than a stand-alone desktop PC or notebook, he said.


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