The tablet’s kicking the PC’s ass, but it's not because of Windows 8

by Ben Bajarin

April 14 2013

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


"The days of the PC being a benchmark of the technology industry are over."

The personal computer as we know it has changed drastically. For decades the industry was defined as a computer with a large screen, a keyboard, and a mouse. That era is over and a tablet shaped future is upon us. 

To fully see this profound shift, just look at the gamut of numbers coming from research firms besides my own.  IDC, for example, has declared that PC shipments have suffered their steepest first quarter decline ever of about 14% year-on-year. 

Below is a chart made by Horace Dediu.  Note the iPad's release in 2010 and the extreme volatility in the PC market.  

Is Windows 8 to blame?

There are many layers to this onion and the tablet is just one of them. IDC and others have mentioned Windows 8 as a key factor in the steep decline.  I don't believe Windows 8 is to blame as much as my fellow researchers.  Windows 8 being a transitionary OS certainly played a role, but I think other factors played a larger role. 

Refresh cycles for one are the biggest culprit and even if the tablet was not invented the PC industry would still face these challenges. These days consumers simply hold on to their PCs as long as the possibly can. It is not just that consumers don't feel inspired to upgrade, its that the notebook they have been using is good enough and they don't feel it needs to be upgraded.  

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To a degree the same has been true of enterprise accounts, and if Windows 8 is really to blame anywhwere it would be with regard to IT purchasing. Large enterprise buying often leaned toward the first half of the year. With many IT customers not being early adopters of new operating systems, we never saw large quanity buys in the first half of the year for traditional PC form factors.  

Mobile is the new benchmark with tablets leading the way

The days where we view and look at the PC as a benchmark for the health of the technology industry is over. Many PC buyers simply don't value the PC any longer.  

Instead, the value in buyers eyes has shifted to mobile by way of smartphones and tablets.  This is true of consumers and its also true of enterprises.  PCs continue to play a role in many people's lives, but they are not valued the way they once were. Tablets and smartphones have taken their place. 

If anything the PC’s future is one of very low cost. We buy them because we need them, but not necessarily because they are highly valued. Of course high end parts of the market will still value the traditional PC form factor, but that is much smaller segment compared to the mass market. 

In fact I would argue that most users of these products don't distinquish between a PC and a tablet. They simply evaluate the products based on which form factor is best suited for the majority of things they want to use it for. In the case of tablets the masses are concluding that the device is capable of doing 80% or more of the daily tasks they do regularly.  To many a tablet is a PC.  

PCs and tablets could be a dynamic duo

Going forward I clearly endorse the emphasis to focus on the tablet, but that is not to say a one-size-fits-all model (e.g. the iPad) will dominate. People will use multiple screens as a part of their lives as a solution. But there is an interesting scenario I could see playing out in corporate and even education solutions.  

What if the ideal workplace solution is a desktop PC (with plenty of technologically advanced trimmings) used in conjunction with the tablet of choice by the employee?  

Perhaps businesses will maintain the responsibility to give the employee a workstation desktop PC and then have them use their tablet as a part of the solution for when they are mobile.  A tablet paired with a desktop may be the ideal hybrid computing solution.  

Without question these types of multi-screen solutions will be key to fully equip knowledge workers with the tools necessary to work effectively and efficiently.  

Consumers and Businesses alike are treading into the multi-screen and the multi-platform era.  To successfully navigate I leave you with the following points:

  • Get comfortable supporting multiple platforms
  • Focus on deploying cross platform software
  • Focus on the cloud to synchronize workflow across devices
  • Give employees the right tool for the job
Ben Bajarin is Director of the Consumer Technology Practice at Creative Strategies, a strategy consulting firm in Silicon Valley. His TabTimes column is published every other Sunday.
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