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Why tablets aren't replacing the PC anytime soon

by Ben Bajarin

January 5 2014

Ben Bajarin is Director of the Consumer Technology Practice at Creative Strategies, a strategy consulting firm in Silicon Valley. His column in TabTimes is published every other Sunday.


"A PC refresh is coming that is likely to impact tablet sales."

The tablet has had a remarkable run the past few years. But it is important to note that in the majority of use cases tablet are not replacing PCs but rather are extending the life of PCs.

We know from our data as well as a number of other firms research that over 90% of tablets sold today have been sold to existing PC owners. And in nearly every supporting data point I have, those tablets are being used to accompany the PC not to replace it. (By PC, I generally mean notebooks). 

So it begs the question whether the tablet killing the PC is a valid narrative or not. I'd contend that this is not a valid narrative and more importantly it could affect tablet sales to a degree in 2014.

A key point about tablet sales is that the vast majority sold are 8" or smaller. Which means that by sheer majority, the vast number of tablets bought by consumers are not even contenders to replace the PC. In fact, when you look at tablet usage data you notice that they are used heavier during the evening hours while PCs are used heavier during the day time / work hours.

Think of it this way: PC by day tablet by night. Oh sure, lots of people use their tablets during the day for both entertainment and business (e.g. sales people and other road warriors) reasons, but I think this sums up the use case for most tablet owners.  

Now, if we acknowledge the point that the vast majority of tablets on the market are used in conjunction with PCs then we acknowledge that the PC is still used and valued by a large number of consumers. If this is true those PCs will still need to replaced. So the question then becomes when will this happen and could it have an effect on the tablet market?

The evidence is clear that 2013 was the lost year for the PC. One of the steepest declines on record as it has been a stable growth market since the early 2000s. We believe that 2014 could mark a turnaround for the PC sector and catch many by surprise.

Part of the logic for this is the number of PCs in the market being used which are 4 years or older. Depending on whose estimates you use, I prefer my own, the number is around 300-350 million. A good percentage of these customers got away not refreshing their PCs due to their tablet purchases. Those who have not refreshed their PC for school, work, home, etc., simply can't wait much longer. A PC refresh is coming and as I point out, it could impact tablet sales.

The tablet/PC hybrid

A caveat to this thinking is that consumers will find the idea of a tablet and PC combined together as an attractive option. Perhaps when a consumer looks to replace their PC they will find something like Microsoft's Surface an attractive offering.  Many in the PC ecosystem are hoping this is the case but I am still skeptical.

I think what corporate employees, small business workers, and even consumers want is the best PC for their needs and the best tablet for their needs. This means they will continue to buy two separate devices of their choosing that best does all the things they want.

While I applaud the efforts of Microsoft, Intel, and others in the PC ecosystem to work to build 2 in 1 PCs and tablets I'm not optimistic that they will appeal to the masses. I believe some segments of both business and consumer customers will gravitate to these form factors but I don't believe they will make up the majority of sales of either PCs or tablets.

I believe the market for PCs and tablet will swing like a pendulum. The years that PCs aren't being refreshed as much tablets sales will boom higher and vice-versa. For everyone who cares about hardware from IT, to the OEMs who make the devices, managing refresh rates and building products that take advantage of refresh years will be critical.

But of course truly innovative products and lower price points could produce a hot seller in either camp regardless of refresh cycles. Given the product maturity on the PC side, I think another breakout tablet is far more likely.

(For other columns like these and the best tablet insights, trends, tips and apps, sign up for either the TabTimes Daily or the TabTimes Weekly Best newsletter)

Ben Bajarin is Director of the Consumer Technology Practice at Creative Strategies, a strategy consulting firm in Silicon Valley. His column in TabTimes is published every other Sunday.
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