Who Really Needs a PC Anyway?

by Ben Bajarin   |   November 28th, 2011

James Kendrick at ZDNet wrote a post asking an interesting question: Who really needs a stinking tablet anyway? His post is well articulated but misses the bigger picture of what tablets are and more importantly what they represent. So rather than look at the world today where tablets are in their early maturity stage, I would rather look to the future, at which point my title, –Who Needs a PC Anyway?– will be a valid question.

In my TIME column today I shared some perspective on what I am calling the Great Tablet Debate. Similarly I wrote a TIME column in June on Why Tablets Represent the Future of Computing. Going back even further when the iPad was first announced and demonstrated I wrote a column (I am quite proud of) for my friends at SlashGear called From Click to Touch – iPad & The Era of Touch Computing. I reference those three articles because they represent a much more holistic view of my thinking than I can get into with one single column – although I will try.

Along those lines I also strongly encourage a read of MG Sieglers post on how Tablets are Computers too.

The key to this whole discussion is to understand the mainstream part of the consumer market and their relationship with technology. If we use the diffusion of innovators theory then we have a start at understanding how technologies move throughout the consumer adoption cycle. What that theory doesn’t deal with, however, is how each group has different demands and expectations with technology.

The innovators and early adopters bring a very different mindset to their tech products than do the early majority, late majority, and laggards to a degree. I think studying the innovators and early adopters (a group I am in) is interesting but the early and late majority are the most important because they represent the largest part of the market.

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore dives deeper into this topic by pointing out how most technology products fail to cross the “chasm” – to move from early adopters to mass audience. He also points out, in this classic book, how each market of the diffusion of innovators has very different needs.

So the key is to understand the different needs of each of these markets and especially the early and late majority. We have done research with this category and found that more than 90% of the time consumers primarily use less than 5 applications with the top two use cases being checking email and browsing the web. None of those top 5 applications used 90% of the time are CPU intensive. In fact most PCs today have significantly more processing power than a consumer regularly uses. I’d actually argue that todays PCs are overkill for the majority of tasks consumers do regularly. They simply use them because prior to tablets they had no mobile computing option.

When it comes to my firms consumer research on the topic of using a tablet or using a PC we are finding that more consumers observe they can do everything they regularly do on a PC with an iPad. The reverse is true with the innovators and the early adopters whose technology demands and expectations are very different. Most in that category still want or use a PC due to those demands. James’s observations in his column more closely represent our research with the early adopter category but not that of the mass market.

The trend we are seeing, that is quite frankly fascinating and potentially dangerous, is that we are hearing consumers buying iPad’s instead of upgrading an older desktop or notebook PC. Their logic is that the iPad will give them more portability and ease of use in the majority of tasks they do regularly, leaving their old notebook or desktop to fall back on for the small use cases where they need it.

This is fascinating because it means that for the time being iPad’s are extending the life of desktop and notebook computers. Consumers are realizing their desktop and/or notebook is good enough and are using the iPad for the new experiences in portability and lean back and lean forward modes. It is also dangerous because my intuition is that as consumers realize how the iPad (or tablets) suffice for most of their major use cases they may realize they never need a clamshell PC again. Also, after a case can you guess what the second most purchased accessory with an iPad is? If you guessed a keyboard you are correct.

Our analyst colleagues at Canalys have for the first time lumped tablets into their overall PC industry tracking. A move I applaud, because in my opinion tablets should be counted as PCs because that is what they are and more importantly that is what they represent to consumers. The tablet should simply be viewed as a form factor evolution of the PC. I expect even more form factor evolution of both the tablet and the PC in the years to come. Tim dives deeper into this in his Monday column on Tech Trends and Disruptors for 2012.

Furthermore, I strongly believe that the limitation in productivity observed by some with the iPad, is not a function of the hardware but the software. As more apps get developed to increase productivity on every front and for every vertical, I believe the industry will have its “a ha!” moment. Shockingly–or not–more and more consumers we speak to have already had this moment, I am just waiting for the tech industry to catch up.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • Anonymous

    “I strongly believe that the limitation in productivity observed by some with the iPad, is not a function of the hardware but the software.”

    Along those lines, I would also add that much of the productivity limitations is more a function of getting trapped in “this is how we’ve always done it” kind of thinking. The solution of which, you rightly point out, is in the software, to take advantage of new paradigms, or de/reconstructing the old paradigms, not get trapped by them.

    Joe

    • Anonymous

      Totally agree. Behavioral shifts sometimes are the larger barriers to overcome in the adoption curve. Hence why so many young people, especially kids gravitate to things like tablets over PCs. This generation will grow up with touch computing.

      Thanks for the comment.

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  • Anonymous

    I suspect that most of the iPad’s buyers have never had a computer before, so Apple is extending the marketplace.

    • http://twitter.com/lemieuxd David Lemieux

      Everyone I know who has an iPad or iPad2 had a computer and had many in the past. We assume that every computer user actually bought the machine to use it’s full potential: Coding, heavy duty editing(Movie, text, music), High-end gaming, operating small businesses, web servers, etc.
      Probably less that 1% of computers are actually reaching full capacity at ANY time in their life.
      When you consider the different needs of home computing (for most people, not necessarily fans of video editing and heavy duty gaming) versus work machines, we realize why the iPad is so popular.

  • Anonymous

    “Also, after a case can you guess what the second most purchased accessory with an iPad is? If you guessed a keyboard….”

    Tell me again what the other choices were, because I would have guessed Apps.

    • Anonymous

      By accessory I mean an external addition to the device. Apps are not external accessories. The case is the second most purchased accessory.

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