Reach out and touch: The notebook isn't dead

Where does the traditional notebook fit into the mobile future

The momentum behind tablets seems almost impossible to stop, leaving many to wonder where the traditional notebook fits into this mobile future. We look at whether there is a place for both.

The notebook was king for many years when it came to mobile productivity. In the age before mainstream Cloud adoption, there simply was no other way to get work done outside of the office. This changed, however, with the evolution of smartphones and the introduction of tablets.

When the original iPad was introduced in 2010, there was some industry scepticism whether it would take off. It was never in doubt. The tablet segment was soon born, growing to the point where sales began to erode those of notebooks. Four years have passed since then and sales in the segment remain strong.

The strong initial uptake of tablets led many industry analysts and experts to worry about the future of the long-serving notebook. Accenture Australia mobility lead, John Cassidy, said the concerns are currently no longer warranted, though he expects notebooks to move further into specialised uses.

“Tablets have made a stunning contribution to the personal computing world, providing a great experience for web browsing, emails, media and app consumption, but even with add-on keyboards still don’t cut it for basic office tasks,” he said.

For offices or work intensive applications, Laser Corporation managing director, Chris Lau, said there is still a place for a notebook, albeit in smaller numbers. “As tablet computing devices get better specifications and become cheaper, they become a viable alternative to a notebook when travelling or for use around the home,” he said.

With users preferring to use their tablets, they often add accessories such as desk stands, wireless keyboards, battery packs and cases help extend the usability in lieu of a notebook. Acer Australia commercial client products head, Daniel Goffredo, said tablets and notebooks had more or less co-existed in the market.

“With greater market acceptance of two-in-one devices, the tablet and notebook segments will start to merge, especially in the highly mobile users,” he said. “There will still be a place for notebooks as these offer businesses the ability to have a single device to cater to broader amount of users.”

The attraction of tablets stems from the mobility, long battery life and intuitive input. Asus A/NZ notebook product manager, Jackson Hsiao, said this makes them useful for light computing tasks, not to mention attractive to consumers looking for an entertainment device.

“When it comes to productivity, gaming and intensive computing tasks, the notebook continues to trump,” he said.

While the spotlight may be on tablets at the moment, Hsiao said the channel continues to have success in selling high-end notebooks, particularly in the commercial, education and government sectors.

“There continues to be a market for end-users who need performance and processing power that a tablet just can’t deliver,” he said. “There are opportunities for the channel to seize for both the notebook and the tablet categories, and the key is presenting the best solution to suit the user’s needs.”

Horses for courses

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One device per person was a common arrangement in the past, but the ongoing consumerisation of IT means that more gadgets are finding their way into the hands of employees. Since no two businesses are same, Acer’s Goffredo said workers are typically picking and choosing what works best for their needs.

“For example, a business which leverages a notebook with long battery life and embedded 3G can offer a great level of service to their customers whilst onsite to a standard notebook with limited connectivity,” he said.

Asus’ Hsiao also sees tablets and notebooks having a place in the consumer and enterprise space. “Tablets can be a great tool in education because they are responsive, light, and easy to use,” he said. “They also have a battery life that will last the whole school day.”

Hsiao adds those same attributes also appeal to consumers seeking a device for light computing, even if it is for tasks such as catching up on movies or reading during commutes. Those looking for “heavy computing” capability are mostly limited to one choice.

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“Enterprise customers and consumers alike require notebooks for tasks that require more grunt, processing power and memory which tablets can’t offer,” he said.

Accenture’s Cassidy also draws a distinction of how useful tablets really are. “For enterprises, tablets are a great way to equip basic office automation and mobilise processes, while notebooks exist to equip traditional office working,” he said. “For consumers, tablets are a great way of consuming media and information, while notebooks a great for creating media, information and documents.”

Instead of seeing the devices in competition with each other, Laser’s Lau said the broader choice of options means specific needs are catered to more efficiently. “With Cloud, multiple devices can access common data and replicate identities across ubiquitous platforms, so anything a user does on one device is synchronised with the other,” he said.

Lau adds tablets have a low cost of entry for consumers and a rapid lifecycle compared to a couple of years ago, so they can “do a lot more on a tablet for a lot less.”

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The digital convergence

In addition to innovations to tablets and notebooks, the role of devices evolve with the habits of users. Already Accenture’s Cassidy is seeing tablets take on a wider range of tasks, such as Microsoft Office for iPad, Cloud services and speech recognition extending the use of these devices. “Notebooks are getting more and more specialised in their use, moving further into being an enterprise tool,” he said.

Acer’s Goffredo foresees the two product categories continuing to merge with each other over the next five years. “In the future, notebooks and tablets can be seen as a single product category,” he said. Goffredo expects users to benefit from this direction, as it will “remove a level of complexity in picking the right device” for their organisation.

Asus’ Hsiao is keeping an eye on development of multi-functional devices which combine the most useful features into a single product. “Consumers should expect to see the two-in-one concept, and other hardware solutions, that offer the flexibility of multiple devices in one over the next 12 months,” he said. Asus itself launched its first  Transformer Tablet in 2010, and Hsiao said the two-in-one category has been successful for the vendor.

In the Android tablet space, Laser’s Lau is seeing encouraging signs in the pricing of tablets. “The market has seen the entry level end of tablet computing crash to under $100, with exit pricing as low as $60,” he said. “This means tablets, like mobile phones, will become commodity items, with new technology being put on the market faster and for less money.”

Lau said low cost tablets were being used in vertical channels for semi-commercial applications such as real estate, transport, hospitality, medical, entertainment and of course education. “For the home user, there is a big growth in tablet computing for children and the elderly as well as first time tablet users,” he said. Continual improvements such as faster processors, longer battery life, improved screens, and better wireless are expected to aid in the proliferation of tablets.

Devices for everyone

Notebook and tablets are well established in the market, though opportunities for the devices continue to exist. Accenture’s John Cassidy emphasised the importance of creating value around the devices themselves through services of bundling software and support.

“The differences compared to the notebook market is in the model of providing security, data back-up and device management to consumers and enterprises moving to a Cloud model, particularly as this creates richer opportunities for partners to bundle extra value to customers,” he said.

Acer’s Daniel Goffredo sees opportunities in the broader range of consumer and commercial products available to partners and resellers. “Their role as a trusted adviser in offering the best product to suits customers’ current and future needs has never been more important,” he said.

With support for Windows XP coming to an end, Goffredo pegs 2014 as the year where resellers can look forward to not only refreshing hardware, but software as well.

The two-in-one device category is where ASUS’s Jackson Hsiao expects partners and resellers to benefit. “Our Transformer Book T100 has been a runaway success for our local resellers and partners,” he said. The education sector is highlighted as a strong one for the product.

Demand for high-end notebooks also continues to be strong. As users look for high performance computing on the movie, Hsiao said there is demand for desktop replacements. “With powerful processing ability, superior graphics and high storage capacity, these devices do everything you’d expect from a desktop but provide increased flexibility and mobility,” he said.

There is already a glut of “no-name” clone tablets being sold online and in discount variety stores, which Laser Corporation’s Chris Lau said may not be safety and licensing compliant. There may also be a lack of any technical, service or end-user support from the importer, potentially resulting in a poor consumer experience. “This results in poor outcomes for resellers and retailers who are left with obsolete ‘me too’ products in a crowded market,” he said.

First time users have a tendency to look for the cheapest option, though Lau said those are the ones who require the most customer support, something “no name products/brands” tend to have the least amount of. “There is huge opportunity for local resellers who provide a strong product line backed by local end-user help and a vendor willing to share risk,” he said.

Beyond price, Lau highlights the importance of products being tailored for the Australian market with “unique features and points of difference” to stand out from the “clone products” in the online and discount retail channels.

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