BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins' prediction this week that tablets would decline in popularity flies in the face of widespread industry forecasting for an explosion of tablet shipments through 2017.
But his comments also provoked debate on what will happen over the next five to 10 years to smartphones, tablets and laptops -- even wearable computers -- and what devices users might favor.
Others said Heins is likely envisioning a world where the smartphone acts as a hub to other displays in rooms or on what users wear to provide processing power and wireless access to data in the cloud.
In an interview with the Bloomberg news service on Monday, Heins said: "In five years I don't think there'll be a reason to have a tablet anymore. Maybe a big screen in your workspace, but not a tablet as such. Tablets themselves are not a good business model."
Tablet market to soar
While tablets might not be a good business model for BlackBerry in particular, analysts widely agree that the tablet market will skyrocket and will be here for many years to come.
IDC in March predicted that tablet shipments globally would expand by 175% in five years, reaching 352 million tablets shipped in 2017. That's an annual growth rate of 22% atop of the 128 million tablets shipped in 2012, IDC said.
"When Heins says tablets aren't a good business model, I think he means for BlackBerry," said Tom Mainelli, an analyst at IDC. "Tablets are a great business model for Apple. There are plenty of companies who think they can build a strong business around tablets."
Gartner and other analyst firms have made similar predictions, prompting comments that Heins has an ulterior motive and wants to emphasize smartphones like the new Blackberry Z10 and the coming Q10 over the company's PlayBook. Or he may be paving the way for a possible new version of a BlackBerry tablet.
"I think [Heins] is looking for publicity. He cannot be serious in his prediction, [which is] pretty much akin to saying the Earth is flat," said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. "There's no rationale for tablets dying."
Dulaney said he wouldn't be surprised if BlackBerry eliminates the PlayBook, which shipped only 150,000 or so units in the third quarter of 2012. "They probably would not be successful with a new tablet if they reintroduced a tablet," he added. "They cannot take on Windows tablets and Apple too."
Android, meanwhile, is expected to become the dominant tablet operating system sometime in 2013, although it has been less popular with workers than with consumers, IDC said. Android tablets will grow to nearly 49% of global market share in 2013, up from 46% in 2012, while Apple's iOS tablets will slip from 51% to 46% over the same period.
Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets and BlackBerry's PlayBook each had less than 1% of the market in 2012. Of those three platforms, only Windows 8 will grow appreciably by 2017 to more than 7%, IDC said.
Smartphones to stay as a hub in personal computing
Rather than suggesting that tablets are doomed, analysts said Heins is more likely predicting that smartphones with a wireless connection to the Internet will be at the center of a person's computing capability. Those smartphones will provide more processing power and access to data in the cloud, which can be transmitted to smart displays, watches and headsets via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or other short-range wireless networks.
Last November, in an interview with the New York Times, Heins predicted that average users won't carry a laptop in three to five years. "Instead, smartphones will power the PC workstations of the future, replacing laptops and desktops," he said.
Dulaney said it's a "foregone certainty" that the next generation of ultrabooks -- thin and powerful high-end laptops -- will run on Intel's Haswell chip and will support touchscreens. As such, they become more like the tablets that have physical keyboards attached.
"Maybe what Heins is saying is that phones will be dockable and serve as browser PC's going forward, with an attached large screen," Dulaney added. "That's been done before, but I don't think it's the future."
Mainelli said wearable computers have the potential to disrupt -- but not replace -- both the smartphone and tablet markets. Wearable computers "change the way we interact with smartphones and tablets."
Another Gartner analyst, Carolina Milanesi, said that in coming years, a variety of smartphones and tablets will power larger screens, acting as the engines for monitors.
"The idea of the Swiss Army knife of one device doing everything is passed. We will continue to own multiple devices that we will use in different ways, and tablets will be the core our content consumption activity," she said. "Smartphones will not go away for quite some time. With wearable computers, you could see some functions migrate from phones to wearable devices, and for some users that might make smartphones less important ... But bottom line, tablets are not a fashion and will be here to stay."
Analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group, said Heins is correct about some tablets going away, at least traditional tablets that were basically netbooks with touchscreens instead of keyboards. "Tablets are becoming just as capable as laptops, and they increasingly have optional keyboards, meaning they are morphing into a laptop variant," Enderle said.
Both Enderle and IDC's Mainelli said large smartphones, meaning those that have displays of six inches or more, will potentially cannibalize tablets with smaller displays of seven inches or so.
"The iPod Touch has pretty much been eliminated by the iPhone, and I think the iPad mini is likely to be eliminated by the iPhone, while the iPad and the MacBook Air are likely to become redundant to each other," Enderle added.
Other emerging technologies, such as 3D gesture controls, voice controls and projection technology, could eliminate the need for physical keyboards or displays, and could place greater reliance on a smartphone or a similar device as a wireless processing hub in a workspace.
"Tablets will sell well for a few years, but with things like Google Glass and projection technology, which projects a screen on any surface, the concept of a tablet is less relevant," said J. Schwan, the CEO of Solstice Mobile, an enterprise mobility consultancy that works with companies like Sprint and industrial parts supplier W.W. Grainger to implement ubiquitous mobility systems.
Schwan said Heins' comments provoked spirited debate among designers and engineers in his Chicago office over the future of personal computing.
"A lot of our current work is getting people off of laptops and moving towards 100% use of the handheld device," Schwan said in an interview. Solstice is testing Google Glass, Nuance's voice navigation and Leap Motion's 3D sensor technology. Leap Motion's controller senses a user's hands and fingers in order to follow every move as precisely as 1 centimeter by 1 centimeter. The technology could be precise enough to detect finger movements similar to striking an actual keyboard, Schwan said.
With that kind of vision, where users are interacting in 3D, "the screen becomes less of a constraint, so you just need a device with wireless connectivity that can process data," Schwan said. "Screen size is less of an issue. It could be that's where Heins is going" with BlackBerry.
This article, Blackberry CEO's comments ignite debate on future of personal computing, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.