The rise of tablets has often led to claims that the PC market is on its last legs. But is the traditional personal computer dead? Not yet. In fact, the tablet market may just help shape the future of PCs.
Last month, both Gartner and IDC research firms released their preliminary quarterly personal computer shipment data for the US. Gartner in particular pointed to the iPad as having a detrimental effect on PC shipments in the last quarter. With the evidence presented, it’s hard to argue with this claim: PC shipments in the US declined year-over-year by between 4-6 per cent, and of all the top manufacturers, only Toshiba and Apple saw year-over-year growth. By comparison, Acer’s sales declined by over 25 per cent, and the entire PC industry as a whole shrunk by 4.2 per cent.
The rise of tablets, in particular the market leading iPad, is said to be the main cause for this decline. The numbers show that the iPad is cannibalising the traditional PC market, with global sales of both laptop and desktop PCs declining. Can we expect this to continue in the future, or will traditional PCs rise again, leaving the tablet market as little more than a popular fad?
The tablet craze is definitely an interesting and popular one. But I can only think back little over a year ago at a similar craze: netbooks. These small, compact and lightweight notebooks had moderate specifications but were designed to simply do the basics like Web browsing, word processing and emailing.
Manufacturers rushed to being their netbooks to the market, particularly targeting user groups like students, and frequent travellers who were on a budget. A netbook could be bought for anywhere from $300-$900, far cheaper than a traditional style notebook. Yes, they had cramped keyboards, and the screens weren’t always the best quality, or the highest resolution, but the low price tag and the excessive marketing by retailers made them a huge success. Netbooks cannibalised PC sales, just as tablets are doing now.
Fast-forward a little over a year and you’ll be hard pressed to find the same hype about netbooks now. They still exist, but only in small quantities, and without the glamour marketing campaigns that came with them when they were first released. Sales dipped dramatically. Now, those flashy marketing flyers, and pushy salesman are trying to sell you a touchscreen tablet rather than a netbook.
Tablets are instantly on and available for use, they’ll argue. They come with hundreds of thousands of apps, like software allowing you to edit Office documents, play a wide range of video formats, or slingshot Angry Birds in your downtime. They’re portable, light and are easy to take on your travels. Most of them have cameras that even double as video recorders. They’ll enable you to access the Internet, either wirelessly, or through a 3G enabled SIM card, just like you do on your mobile phone.
Will tablets end up as a ‘fad’, just like netbooks were? Probably not. There are two key reasons why. Firstly, the tablet, unlike the netbook, is not positioned as a notebook replacement, but rather a device that is meant to supplement a notebook or PC. It occupies a useful niche between a smartphone and a notebook, but a tablet in current form could never intend to replace a traditional PC. It speaks volumes that Steve Jobs describes the iPad as a “post-PC device” yet the first thing you need to do when you unpack a new iPad is plug it into a PC to set it up. Flashy marketing at its finest.
Secondly, the real test of tablets is whether they will make roads into the enterprise market. It’s one thing for Apple to nail the consumer market, but another to successfully position the iPad as a device fit for corporate users. After a slow start, it appears the iPad is making in-roads into the business market.
As a key example, IBM recently stated the iPad as its preferred enterprise client, bringing it a step closer to becoming an accepted corporate tool. In the journalism industry, I’ve frequently seen iPads and even Android tablets replacing the traditional notepad and paper: with on-board cameras and a voice recorder only a download away from the App Store, a device like the iPad could easily replace two or three work tools.
What next for PCs? So, where does that leave the traditional PC? At least for the next five years, they’ll always have a place in an office environment. Large corporations replacing fleets of older machines will continue to have a significant and positive impact on sales. But in five years time, will everyone in a business need a traditional desktop or notebook PC? Or will they be handed a fast and lightweight tablet device?
Mark Dean, IBM’s chief technology office for the Middle East and Africa, seems to think tablets are the way of the future.
“It may be odd for me to say this, but I’m proud that IBM decided to leave the personal computer business in 2005, selling our PC division to Lenovo,” he wrote in a blog post. Despite Dean’s claims, we tend to think there is still a place for PCs in the future of computing.
The tablet market, particularly the iPad, may be cannibalising PC sales right now, but the tablet should in fact help morph and evolve the PC over the next few years. Faster, lighter components, less physical moving parts like Flash based hard drives, and software downloaded over the Internet, rather than stored on an optical disc will be the way of the future.
Take a look at Apple’s MacBook Air, for example. The popular “ultrabook” has no optical drive, no Ethernet port and uses an SSD hard drive to provide better performance, reduce weight and increase reliability. Five years ago, did anyone ever expect to see a notebook without an optical drive?
Gartner seems to agree that tablets won’t directly replace PCs. “Media tablets, such as the iPad, have impacted mobile growth, but more because they have caused consumers to delay new mobile PC purchases rather than directly replacing aging mobile PCs with media tablets,” said Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner. “We believe direct substitution of media tablets for mobile PCs will be minimal.”
The PC is not dead, and it won’t be dead in five years time, either. More and more people will shift towards tablets as they continue to evolve: both consumers and business users will discover that they can do most of the things they did on an old laptop with a new, lightweight and powerful touchscreen tablet. But despite the rise of tablets, the PC isn't going anywhere, and will easily co-exist. Tablets may help shape the future of PCs, but they will not consign the famous