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LAPTOPS GAINING ON DESKTOPS But the high price for portability will keep them behind


The dinosaur sitting on your desk may not be headed for extinction. The brute in question is the desktop computer. Just yesterday, it was the future.

Today, some trade magazines and computer experts are saying that -- like the dinosaur -- the desktop computer may be too big to live in a world where only the small will survive.

The beast touted as its likely replacement is the laptop computer. Techno-evolution has given laptops the power and speed of some desktop computers -- and they'll fit in your briefcase.

But not everything about them is small: The $5,000 to $6,000 price tag of top-of-the-line laptops is a big reason desktop computers may not yet be ready to join the dinosaurs.

The miracle may be that laptops have come this far, this fast. For people who can afford the best, they offer what International Business Machines Corp. calls "an office in a briefcase."

Business people now use laptops to communicate with the big computer at work while they're traveling, run complicated spreadsheet programs from their airline seats and send and receive faxes from hotel rooms.

"But not everyone wants or needs to take work home," said Michael Miller, editor of InfoWorld magazine.

"There's always going to be a price differential and these people aren't going to pay it," he said.

The price-performance ratio will favor desktop computers for some time.

"The laptop will be chasing the desktop, but never quite catch up for some uses," said Bob Lawten, product manager for IBM's new L40 laptop. "My view is that the desktop computer will continue for a long time."

Ed Juge, marketing vice president of Tandy Corp., explained: "Desktops are easier to build. If you're buying a machine that you just plan to use in your office, you can buy it for $1,200 to $2,500."

Price isn't the only potential roadblock for high-powered laptop computers:

* Battery life: Most laptops get three hours at best from a set of batteries. That means you would have to carry a spare battery for a coast-to-coast flight. "Ideally you ought to have eight hours or so of battery life," Mr. Juge said. Such a battery is years away.

* Weight: Small laptops weigh 7 to 8 pounds. But you add a couple more pounds with a charger, spare battery, carrying case and a few floppy disks. Combine that with luggage and even small airports can make business travelers wish for the days of a legal pad and No. 2 pencil. "Four or 5 pounds is where they need to emerge," said IBM's Lawten. He believes lighter laptops will come soon.

* Keyboard: Some computer makers compromise with a small, flat keyboard. That's tough on fingers used to a regular keyboard. IBM compromised by leaving off the numeric keypad (although a keypad can be plugged into the side).

No logical solution is in sight. "Fingers and hands aren't likely to get any smaller," Mr. Miller said.

* Display: Most laptops don't have color displays. The technology for good and affordable color is several years away. Black and white displays aren't as easy to use as full-sized color monitors.

All this means the desktop computer isn't going to be as easy to kill as some experts think. Still, the future may be with laptops.

"Human nature moves toward portability," Mr. Lawten said. "We want portable televisions, portable telephones and portable stereo systems."

And laptop computers.

"Laptops used to be nice to have, but now they're becoming a necessity," said Leslie Fiering, an analyst who follows personal computers for the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group. "Corporations are ordering them by the thousands."

Between now and 1994, laptop sales are expected to grow by 25 percent, while desktops will grow by 15 percent, according to San Jose, Calif.-based Dataquest Inc., market analysts specializing in small computers.

InfoWorld's Mr. Miller believes the personal computer market will be split 50-50 between laptops and desktops by the end of the decade.

Demand is predicted to continue growing for the foreseeable future. Which means the laptop computer already does one thing much better than the desktop:

"Laptops are selling literally as fast as we can manufacture them," Mr. Juge said. "I wish I could say that for desktops."

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