With the tablet category being just over 3 years old, it is hard to know for sure what the refresh rates will be. To set the context there are several data points worth noting in order to address this question.
Firstly, the vast majority of tablet owners are also PC owners. This is important because there is an already established mindset of when a need to replace a PC and this mindset can translate into the thinking about tablet refreshes.
Second, most tablets which are being purchased and used in meaningful ways (not just as portable TVs) are being purchased by those with higher disposable incomes. This is a key point when you think about the lifecycle of a tablet.
While the tablet industry is too young to say definitively what the lifecycle of a tablet is, the consensus best guess out there is 2.2 years, but I'm going to tell you in a minute why that number's too conservative.
Third, of those in the market to buy a new tablet or did already, more often than not their old tablets are still in use and being handed down to other family members or sold in the secondary market.
So, it is safe to assume that although we have a small number of second time tablet owners, and an even smaller amount of third time tablet owners, the vast majority of tablets sold over the past few years are still in use in some way.
So, with that in mind, what are some of the plausible theories for tablet refresh cycles? The first theory says it depends on the screen size.
An interesting operating theory for refresh cycles goes like this: the smaller the screen the more frequently it will be refreshed.
We know that smartphones currently have the fastest refresh rates. Right now the global average is around two years, although in certain markets like China it is 1.4 years. PCs are now averaging 5.2 years and desktops around 6 years as a lifecycle. So it seems reasonable that tablets will fit somewhere in the middle of smartphones and desktop/notebook PCs in terms of a refresh cycle.
However, the screen size will certainly play a role. For example, I can see a scenario where tablets which are below 8" are refreshed more frequently than tablet which are 9" and above. Part of this will have to do with cost since smaller tablets will cost less which means it is easier to buy them more frequently.
This would mean that bigger tablets, perhaps ones being used more like notebooks, can sustain a longer shelf life.
Of course much of it depends also on the operating system. If mobile operating systems like Android or iOS outpace the capabilities of older hardware then it is more likely that by necessity a newer model is required. This is a problem of potential software bloat will be less likely to exist in notebook or desktop installments but certainly more likely to exist in more mobile ones.
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Will 64-bit processors future-proof tablets?
One interesting somewhat unforeseen shift in this thinking could be the impact of 64-bit CPUs. Part of the reason notebooks and desktops have been able to survive longer has been due to a steady increase in processing power which leapfrogged that of software. Meaning that the performance of the device was more than enough for most major software applications. 64-bit processors helped contribute to this.
As the mobile world moves to 64-bit processors, such as those found in the latest iPhone and iPad Air, it could mean that people can use their tablets much longer than originally thought.
I believe tablets will exist in the market place and fulfill primary uses for a 3.5 year average. Some devices like 9" tablets and larger may extent to 4 years, and some devices like 8" and smaller tablets may be less than 2 years but I think the average will be around 3.5 years.
This is of course an early approximation using what data exists today but it is my best guess for now.
From and industry standpoint, understanding device refreshes is key to correctly predict sales in certain years and understand patterns in consumer and enterprise markets.
The key takeaway is that tablets are having an effect on PCs and delaying their refresh cycles.
An interesting closing question to ponder is whether or not bigger smartphones and so-called phablets can have an impact on tablet refresh cycles. Just as tablets have proven to a more portable alternative to the notebook, larger smartphones are starting to show they can at least do some of the work we typically think of using a tablet for.
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