Dispatches from CES 2013: Long Live the Handheld, the PC Is Dead

Qualcomm Inc., Chairman and CEO Dr. Paul E. Jacobs
Qualcomm Inc., Chairman and CEO Dr. Paul E. Jacobs

The first thing you notice when you walk the floor at the Consumer Electronics Show is the lack of PCs.

Booth attendants turn to tablets to call up information about products or to take orders. At one demo at Qualcomm's (QCOM) booth -- CEO Dr. Paul Jacobs delivered the show-opening keynote Monday night -- a staffer used an iPad to demonstrate how software can recognize and add on-screen details about any real-world object.

Think "Minority Report" meets "The Jetsons." In this hyperconnected world in which data is an uttered sentence away ("Siri, where's the closest In-N-Out Burger?"), PCs are noticeably absent because they just aren't portable enough.

Companies know it, too, which is why so much of the news from the big names demonstrating wares at CES had everything to do with devices you'll hold in your hand or control via remote:

  • Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) wants to give your portable device a second screen. At CES, the company best known for printers introduced a portable monitor that plugs into a USB port. It's a smart strategy: HP gets to overcome its own mobile shortcoming by introducing an add-on for others' devices that are already playing well in the mass market.

  • iRobot (IRBT) bulked up its line of automated maids with the Looj gutter cleaner and the Mirra pool cleaner. Each robot is controlled wirelessly and handles the dirt and grime homeowners would rather not deal with by hand. And they do it with uncommon speed: The Mirra can filter 70 gallons of water a minute.

  • Garmin (GRMN) introduced K2, an enhanced navigation system that takes over a vehicle's infotainment options. Its 10-inch display not only offers maps but also audio, connected notifications, and, while the vehicle is parked, access to your calendar, social media, and more. Forget ever having to be unplugged. (If, you know, that's your sort of thing.)

  • Western Digital (WDC) made a bid to show that PCs aren't entirely uncool with a new hybrid disk drive that combines the standard magnetic disk platter found in most computers with solid-state storage that powers smartphones and tablets. Should it matter? Not really, since data is data, but for investors it's more circumstantial evidence that the world is tilting toward devices.

  • And as if to prove it, Deutsche Telekom's (DTEGY) T-Mobile subsidiary announced a ridiculous $70 monthly no-contract mobile plan that includes unlimited voice, messaging, and data. Sprint Nextel (S) also offers unlimited data but it charges more. Expect smartphone users to flock to T-Mobile as a result. Not that they aren't already: Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray told CNET that T-Mobile's network is already serving 1.9 million iPhones and is adding 100,000 more every month. An impressive stat, to be sure, when you consider that T-Mobile's arrangement with Apple (AAPL) for selling the handset isn't yet live.

CES makes good on the promise to give consumers a taste of the future. A future that, increasingly, looks like it won't include the personal computers that helped bring us to this point. Take note, investors.

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Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Apple at the time of publication. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Qualcomm, and Western Digital. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple and iRobot. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple.

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