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Consumers buy touch notebooks for design, not for Windows 8

1-in-10 laptops shipped this year sport touch, says NPD DisplaySearch

December 4, 2013 08:11 AM ET

Computerworld - Touch-ready notebook PCs will account for about 11% of all laptops shipped this year, an improvement over 2012 when customers had few choices if they wanted to smudge screens, a market research analyst said today.

But touch remains a tough sell, said Richard Shim of NPD DisplaySearch.

"Customers think, 'I shouldn't have to pay extra for touch, I get it free on my smartphone and tablet,'" said Shim of the premium prices that still dominate touch notebooks. "And there are really no apps that are forcing or encouraging consumers to adopt touch."

Manufacturers will ship nearly 20 million touch-based laptops in 2013, according to DisplaySearch's most recent forecast, published last week. Both shipments and penetration rates -- the latter the percentage of all notebooks that have touch capabilities -- will continue to climb through 2017, when DisplaySearch estimated touch notebook shipments at 64 million, or almost 40% of the total.

In the shorter term, however, the same barriers -- higher prices and lack of compelling apps -- will continue to block wide adoption. But the touch trend has improved in the past year.

"Last year, no one did a good job of promoting touch, but this year I saw tags on all the systems," said Shim of his Black Friday store checks last week. Nor were touch laptops evicted from the general computer section, as they often were at retail in 2012, but remained amongst more traditional laptops.

And in some cases, prices have dropped, especially for notebooks with smaller, 11.6-in. screens, and are more competitive with mouse-and-keyboard PCs. "Brands are starting to realize there's no reason to charge a premium if people won't buy them," Shim said, "so there has been some creep into these lower price bands."

But Shim rejected the idea that Microsoft's Windows 8 was the reason why people were buying touch notebooks. "Touch penetration on Windows 8 is still relatively modest," he said, referring to the fact that most users of the operating system still rely on mouse and keyboard.

Instead, he believed consumers' decisions were based on the form factors and device designs of touch notebooks, which are often unconventional and have style flourishes that blocky laptops lack. Most of the compelling touch PCs are not traditional clamshell-style systems but rather more tablet-like, dubbed "hybrids," "convertibles" and "sliders," where keyboards can be detached, pivoted or flipped out of the way.

In other words, customers buy touch notebooks in spite of Windows 8, not because of it.

Not that that matters much to Microsoft, which has been waiting for wider availability of touch notebooks since it launched Windows 8 in October 2012. The OS relies heavily on touch and although criticism was somewhat muted by the release of Windows 8.1, detractors continue to pan it on non-touch systems.

The variety of designs, in fact, can be attributed to Microsoft, which pushed its hardware partners to step up their game by launching the Surface line of keyboard-enabled tablets. Analysts have echoed the refrain since mid-2012 that OEMs were not up to the task of design and form innovation as the traditional PC waned.

"What Surface can accomplish is providing a sort of permission to other OEMs that it's okay to experiment with PC design," said Ross Rubin of Reticle Research, in October. "When Microsoft does it, it's a statement that it can work in the Windows ecosystem."

Touch notebooks chart
Touch notebook shipments and penetration, 20 million and 11%, respectively, this year, will grow to 64 million and 40% by 2017. (Image: NPD DisplaySearch.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter@gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed Keizer RSS. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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