With the tremendous growth in the tablet market, prognostications about the end of the PC are rife. News of declines in PC sales feed into these speculations. Network World, for instance, reports that a Canalys Research study claims tablet sales are growing sharply and biting into desktop and laptop sales (“Windows PC sales hit a low as tablet sales soar in Q2, Canalys says”). Tablets offer a number of features that appeal to mobile users, whether in consumer or business settings, but do they really have the ability to take down the PC?
Tablets Are Good at Some Things—Not So Much at Others
The tablet form factor is in some ways a middle ground between the larger and bulkier laptop and the smaller and sleeker smartphone or PDA. The touchscreen eliminates the need for input devices like mice and keyboards, enabling the tablet surface to be essentially just a display. Tablets address demand for mobility combined with users’ desire to gain better access to information than a tiny smartphone screen provides, but without the bulk of a laptop. For web browsing, video communications (such as teleconferencing), playing back various media and other tasks, tablets can be better than laptops and smaller devices like smartphones. Their larger displays enable a better visual experience, and the touchscreen capability provides a more direct user interface than the keyboard and touchpad (or connected mouse) of a laptop.
Furthermore, in light of these main uses of the tablet, the operating system is of little concern to many users (in the sense that they are not held captive to Windows to enable reuse of software they purchased or are familiar with). Thus, even though Apple trailed Windows-based PCs for years, the company’s iPad is by far the leading tablet on the market.
So, given their advantages, tablets will eventually replace laptops and desktops as some prognosticators expect, right? Well, probably not.
As the saying goes, if you try to please everybody, nobody will like it. In their quest for greater mobility—including longer battery life—tablet designs have been forced to steer away from all-out processing power and toward CPUs that focus more on efficiency. Needless to say, greater efficiency is not necessarily a bad thing, but processing requires power, and at some point processing capabilities must give way to concerns about battery life. A tablet that must be recharged every 10 or 15 minutes is of little use to users on the go. On the other hand, sluggish response is unacceptable to many users, including hard-core gamers and content developers. To be sure, advances in process technology, CPU designs and software efficiency mean that the gap between power efficiency and processing muscle is narrowing, but these two characteristics will always involve some tradeoff in the design process (depending, in part, on the requirements of the application).
A Bifurcated Market
Instead of being a wholesale replacement for PCs, tablets may simply be instigating a natural bifurcation of the market. Users mainly interested in viewing content online, writing short emails, updating their Facebook status and engaging in light gaming—particularly if they want to do so on the go—don’t need tremendous processing power or the other benefits of a desktop or even laptop. For these users, tablets make good sense. And, no doubt, plenty of these users are out there. Thus, the shift toward tablets isn’t surprising, but it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will abandon laptops and desktops. As tablets gain more of the capabilities of PCs in a thin, light and mobile form factor, they will steal more of the market, but PCs still provide a number of benefits (even beyond raw computing power) that tablets do not.
Have you ever considered upgrading the processor on your smartphone or tablet? Or maybe adding more memory? You may have—but probably not. The more compact a design, the more difficult it becomes to make the kinds of upgrades that are staples of desktop computers and, to a lesser extent, laptops. A desktop can last a number of years with a few relatively inexpensive upgrades, but an increase in tablet capabilities virtually necessitates purchase of a brand new device. PCs, therefore, offer at least one distinct advantage (again, ignoring the matter of processing power) over tablets.
For content creators, particularly those dealing with images or video, tablets offer little competition to PCs. In these cases, raw processing power is critical, as are larger (or multiple) displays and input devices like mice, keyboards and pen tablets. Software portability is also a concern. Assuming it provided sufficient capabilities, a tablet could serve as a “desktop” of sorts through a docking station, but with all the peripherals and the need to plug them in, the convenience of a separate desktop computer might well be seen as worth the cost.
The result, therefore, may not be so much one single computer market dominated by tablets, but two separate markets: users focused primarily on mobility and “low-power” computing, and users focused primarily on higher-power computing (gaming and content creation). The majority of users will likely be in the former category, which means tablets will have significant momentum for some time as the computing market divides and as tablet vendors increase the capabilities of their products and work out the bugs.
The question is how well a tablet will be able to emulate the capabilities of the PC. One factor mitigating the matter of processing power is the cloud. Assuming the tablet has solid (i.e., high bandwidth and ubiquitous or near-ubiquitous) connectivity, processing requirements could be moved to the cloud, where power is less of a concern. The tablet would then be more of a remote interface for greater computing power. The cloud also ameliorates storage issues.
Microsoft’s Windows 8 may also have some effect, as this new OS will be geared more heavily to tablet-style operation in anticipation of the company’s release of its Surface tablet. This approach may be the beginnings of a resolution to the matter of software portability. On the other hand, however, this focus on tablets may backfire if, as suggested above, the tablet and PC markets are actually quite distinct rather than a single market for which both devices are competing. Some industry analysts predict that Microsoft will eventually return to a “desktop-style” OS (a la Windows 7)—the company’s strong suit.
A large portion of users probably don’t require more computing capabilities than tablets provide, and the thin, light form factor and mobility of these devices will draw many such users away from PCs. But the PC market will not be completely replaced: a strong segment of the existing market will continue to rely on desktops and laptops owing to their greater power and other capabilities. The open question is how the market will divide. Tablets may well become the dominant form of computing, but even if this occurs, we will not be entering a “post-PC world” anytime soon. For companies, tablets may be preferred means of communication, but they are unlikely to replace the content-creation and development capabilities of PCs. Tablets are a useful and flashy tool, but like most tools, they have certain things they do well and certain things they don’t do well. That will leave plenty of room for PCs to stay on as important tools of their own.
Photo courtesy of FHKE