Are Tablets Inevitable as PC Replacements?

The tablet phenomenon is bigger than you probably realize. Before the "new iPad" debuted, Apple announced that it had sold 55 million of its tablets to date. Apple CEO Tim Cook helped put that figure in perspective at a conference in February: "It took us 22 years to sell 55 million Macs," he reportedly said. "It took us about five years to sell 22 million iPods, and it took us about three years to sell that many iPhones." The fact that the iPad sold 55 million units in less than two years tells us something: Tablets are a runaway success.

Indeed, IDC in February forecast rapid growth in sales of Android tablets as well as continued sales growth for iPads. The market research firm forecasts that just under 90 million tablets will be sold worldwide this year. In 2015, according to IDC, tablet sales will come within striking distance of 140 million, with Apple's iOS capturing 51% of sales and Android grabbing 47%.

Do those numbers make you think PCs are dead? Actually, sales of PCs are growing modestly. According to a March 2012 Gartner report, global PC shipments are expected to hit 368 million units this year, for a 4.4% increase over last year. Gartner also expects the PC market to be stronger in 2013, with sales projected to reach 400 million units. Desktop and notebook PCs aren't even close to being dead yet.

One reason is that tablets don't perform all PC functions well. Anyone who uses a notebook PC several hours a day to read email, surf the Web, edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations, and work with enterprise apps -- and that describes a lot of people -- makes heavy use of a keyboard. Most tablets provide virtual keyboards, which are only barely adequate for long-duration touch-typing. Tablets were not designed for typing. I contend that until tablets offer lightweight and compact add-on keyboards, business tablet users will for the most part need notebook or desktop PCs too.

I had intended to focus a bit more on Apple's "new iPad," which was arriving on U.S. shores as I began to write this column. But truthfully, I'm somewhat ambivalent about the third-generation iPad. The high-resolution display is a clear improvement. But when all is said and done, what this new iPad will likely be remembered for is that it sold in even greater numbers than the iPad 2 did.

I think broader market dynamics are a more compelling story. The dramatic uptake on tablets, for both consumer and business use, is a clear indicator that, while the PC isn't dead, its days are numbered. Evidently there's pent-up demand for a device that is grab-and-go portable and that can be used just about anywhere, conveniently. And that need dovetails nicely with the proliferation of location-based app services.

If you think of them as take-anywhere versions of notebook PCs, tablets are merely the next rung on the 30-year evolutionary ladder that has included tower desktop machines; luggable, sewing-machine-size "portables"; and 7-lb. notebook PCs. The PC has been getting smaller since its inception, and the tablet is the next iteration.

What am I driving at? I think tablets are growing at such a prodigious rate that they can't help but have a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts effect on computing; IDC's prediction that tablet sales will hit nearly 140 million units in 2015 strikes me as conservative. PC makers have no interest in seeing the PC die off. But the market is speaking loudly and clearly.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can contact him at sfinnie@computerworld.com and follow him on Twitter (@ScotFinnie).

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