Why I am Convinced Tablets are the Future

by Ben Bajarin   |   July 16th, 2012

During the course of many conversations I have been having lately with industry insiders there is still a drastic underestimation of the importance of tablets. There are some I talk to who get it but I still feel that largely the sentiment around tablets and the iPad in particular is that it is a toy and not a personal computer. So in this column I am hoping to articulate my view on this subject.

More Consumption and Light Production Than Heavy Lifting

I know thinking objectively from other peoples vantage points is a challenge for many people. I am close friends with many of these people. However considering many different views and specifically trying to get inside peoples heads and see things from their perspective is something I greatly enjoy. That probably explains why I love anthropology and ethnographic research. The key point is that just because one consumer can not replace their laptop with a tablet does not mean that another consumer can not. Consumer preferences and usage models are not universal.

My conviction, which stems from my observational research with consumers, which we conducted at Creative Strategies, is that a large amount of consumers do not do complex things with their computers. I recall some research we did four years ago trying to gauge the importance and perceived demand of increased CPU performance by mass market consumers. In this research consumers shared with us how they use their PCs. What we observed was that the majority of consumers we interviewed used less than five primary applications on a daily basis and none of those applications were CPU intensive.

To further highlight this observation I want to share a chart containing some research from Alpha Wise and Morgan Stanley. In a large survey with mainstream consumers, their research findings came back very similar to our observational research. Specifically that roughly 75% of the time consumers were not using their PCs to do things we would consider “heavy lifting.” Although I am not sure that term applies to the mass market consumer.

Now the question I have after looking at that chart is: Which of the above tasks can not be done on an iPad? The answer is none.

Now if you are like me and you have large numbers of friends, family, social acquaintances, people who come up to me when they see me using my iPad with a keyboard at Starbucks, etc., then you probably give advice on what types of technology to buy. So when I ask them what they use their computers for, the answer almost always comes back the same. Not much they say, I mainly browse the internet, check email, watch videos, and occasionally need to make a spreadsheet or use a word processor.

Interestingly the overwhelming majority of conversations I have had around this topic, the person asking me the question is already leaning toward an iPad because they recognize it can do most of what they need it to the large majority of the time. So the question generally centers around whether or not they need a new notebook or whether they should just get an iPad and keep using their old notebook.

The long and short of it is that unless the person asking the question is a power user, creative professional, etc., it is very hard to not recommend them getting an iPad and just keep using the notebook they have for the less than 15% of the time they may possibly need it. You can probably guess what my advice generally is and I know many happy consumers who have taken this path.

Things We Hold We Love

Now I want to make one last point. The fascinating thing about tablets besides the points I made above, is that we don’t just touch them when we use them, we hold them. I am convinced there is something psychological about this that makes the tablet more personal than a notebook. With a notebook we touch (the keyboard and mouse / trackpad) but we don’t hold it while using it. The notebook form factor is not conducive to this usage model because it must be sitting on a flat surface, like a desk, table, or lap to be used.

We also hold tablets much closer to our person while we use them the majority of the time. Whereas with notebooks, we keep them at arms length. This fundamental difference in closeness is another reason I believe there is a deeper psychological attachment and lure to tablets than with notebooks.

If I was to rank emotional attachment to devices of a personal nature I would say the smartphone comes first, then the tablet, then the notebook. Smartphones and tablets we touch to use and hold to use, while the notebook we just touch, and I use the word touch loosely with the notebook form factor because it is not a touch computer like the smartphone and tablet–and I am not convinced it ever will be.

The fundamental truth is that there is a distinctly different relationship consumers are beginning to form with tablets that they never developed with notebooks. We continually hear in consumer interviews how much people love their iPads and can not live without it. Had this attachment developed with notebooks they wouldn’t have delegated them to the back room. And think about the millions (and growing) of kids who are developing this relationship with tablets in their formative years. I am confident my kids will have no use for a notebook in the future. Desktop maybe, or perhaps central home server, but notebook– not so much.

Following my logic, it should not be tough to see why we are so bullish on tablets. There are the above reasons, along with many more than I have time to get into (but will in our upcoming tablet report, shameless plug), which are all transforming and reshaping this industry before our eyes. The challenge is not everyone sees it.

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
  • FalKirk

    Another great article on a crucial topic.

    Just yesterday, it struck me that about half of the arguments that are now occurring on tech blogs across the world can can be attributed to one’s beliefs on the future of the tablet. A huge portion of the tech community believe that the tablet is a toy or, at best, a niche device. Another portion believes that tablets are the future of computing and that they will soon overtake notebooks and desktops as the world’s primary computing device. Some of the debates caused by this divide are just plain silly:

    - Is the tablet a personal computer?
    - Is the tablet a consumption or a content creation device?
    - Does the tablet do “real” work.

    None of that really matters. It does not matter what we SAY about the tablet, all that matters is what we actually DO with the tablet. If we use it like a personal computer, then it is one. If we use it to create content, than it’s a content creation device. If we use a tablet to do work that’s important to us, then it’s “real” work.

    The question then, is not how we arbitrarily categorize or define the tablet but, rather, how we actually use the tablet and whether others will find uses for the tablet too. There are thousands of anecdotal stories on how people are using their tablets. There are hundreds of reports showing the sales numbers for tablets. The answers to these questions are becoming more and more obvious every day.

    • Rich

      “A huge portion of the tech community believe that the tablet is a toy.”

      People in the tech community sometimes miss what the public sees clearly.

  • Jac Madsen

    FalKirk- I agree with your comment. I would take it further to emphasize that we should look at how people wish they could use their tablet. This is where the technology is going to go. It follows the self interest of those who are pushing the tech. Personally I wish I could do some simple html/CSS updates on the train without worrying about the screen hinge snapping from a jolt or rouge swinging briefcase. With Diet Coda now I can. the interface isn’t yet to the point where we can expect a tablet to take the place of a workstation, so the toy or novelty argument will remain. But, so much of what makes the business world run is not done from a cube, it’s done over lunch at a counter or even at the beach. The mobility factor of tablet computing and the power in those devices is largely untapped.

    In speaking to this article- This is the largest obstacle we have to overcome with our prospective clients. We are running into a wait and see. A lack of understanding that a first screen device that is able to act on location in the moment of decision really should be the focal point of their communication efforts. All other forms of traditional communication can be augmented by this discovery and lead to really powerful integrated communication efforts. And yet, we find that many people prefer to remain in a fragmented communication model that doesn’t address the desires of their mobilized community.

    • FalKirk

      “A lack of understanding that a first screen device that is able to act on location in the moment of decision really should be the focal point of their communication efforts.”-Jac Madsen

      A very nice post, Jac. Changing one’s traditional views in always difficult. Computers were a terribly hard sell in the seventies. What were computers good for anyway? Lotus 1-2-3 helped to change all of that. Computers were purchased solely for the purpose of using their spreadsheet capabilities. Later, the laser printer helped to shift the perspective of a lot of potential buyers. The term “desktop publishing” sold a lot of computers.

      I think the thing that is swiftly changing the world’s perspective of the tablet is their sheer ubiquity. I see them everywhere (but, then again, I’m looking for them.) We’re well on our way to passing the tipping point. Soon, seeing tablets in use is going to go from unusual to being the norm.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_G6VVWF2ONHKQ6S26IQUWWTOMWA Wolfgang Mozart

      How do you get to the point where you THINK you CAN’T do HTML/CSS updates on the iPad?

  • Kwiktrax

    I don’t think widespread acceptance of tablet like devices are so much about what can or cannot be done on the form factor, but more about the situation and context in which these media tools are being used. When I have a desktop, laptob, and tablet at hand, I almost always gravitate to the desktop to get things done. A big screen, both broader visual and quicker touch access to more tools that require less physical hand and speed activity, no warm to hot plastic in my hand or lap, and, finally, the more relaxed and comfortable body positionins available. The desktop is more relaxed and more conducive to planning and thoughtful-accurate thinking.
    The desktop and tablet to smaller devices serve a different context. They are not really competitors but parallel tools that need to be much improved, made seamlessly compatible, and able to serve each others usefulness. They live in a different environment and both need to be better tuned to the context they best serve.
    Kwiktrax

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_G6VVWF2ONHKQ6S26IQUWWTOMWA Wolfgang Mozart

      Hot plastic in your hand? You must be a PC user. The iPhone and iPad and Mac DO WORK WELL IN THE CONTEXT THEY BEST SERVE. iCloud does this quite well. You can use any or all of them, and no plastic. All for the cost of a couple of pizzas over generic PC commodity garbage with no hope of legally running a decent OS. No brainer.

  • mnemosyne

    I love my laptop, and feel that I “hold” it on my lap. As a novelist, I use it everyday for word processing. However, rich text has come such a long way, that I could, in fact, envision using a tablet for word processing with a lazar projection keyboard or other keyboard attachment (such as bluetooth, etc.) What I think is most intriguing about tablets and particularly the iPad is the cross generational use. I see people using the iPad who resisted smart phones, and children do gravitate to them as well.

  • Rich

    Ben, what percentage of the people who view the iPad as a toy, do not own one?

    • steve_wildstrom

      My guess is not a lot higher than zero. It only takes using one for about 5 minutes to realize it is not a toy.

  • David Lee

    Consumer market in most instances is driven by the needs and desires of the consumer. now, i might add too, the capacity of the consumer. Clearly, the dumbing down of the consumer base in the US needs a product that really has no purpose other than to play hi-def games and surf the web endlessly in tranquil bliss. I however, as a contrarian, am hopeing to see the mobile telecom/computing “smartphones” take us to a better place.

    • who Is Dumb?

      if surfing the web is dumb, then what is posting deep down in the comments section of a blog on that web??

  • http://twitter.com/redwanhuq Redwan Huq

    Great article but not buying your argument. I do agree that content consumption is what we do mostly nowadays. But content creation is still a large portion of what we use technology for as seen by your pie chart. Regardless, almost all of the consumption and creation still happens only in the browser. So I don’t see any wisdom in using the ecosystem-locked, app-centric model of tablets.

    Here are my thoughts. The browser is the most used program on any device. And almost all of the content consumption occurs in the browser nowadays. Even with Apple’s desperate push with Siri to stick to apps and APIs (instead of the web), almost 90% of the time, Siri just offers to do a web search. The point is, no matter what the case, the sheer power and breadth of the web can’t be matched by any number of apps. That’s why a much better solution are Chromebooks.

    Chromebooks are even better at content consumption than tablets since they retain the familiar interface most people are used to. They also are vastly easier to use than tablets (no new OS to learn), more secure, and straight-up better and faster web browsing experience. Particularly in businesses and education, Chromebooks are a much better bet due to their tighter control and vastly cheaper price tag. I’ve used both a tablet + keyboard and a Chromebook and have to say that I prefer the Chromebook, particularly the 2nd gen devices.

    I don’t necessarily believe that physically holding tablets is related to the psychological attachment. Holding a tablet is more of a nuisance than a convenience actually. After using one for a few minutes, you immediately want to find a place to put it down. I think touchscreens are still “new and cool” to the average consumer and that’s why they are so enamored by them. But honestly, touchscreens are really a stepping stone to the future — gesture control. Technology like LeapMotion will make touchscreens obsolete sooner than later.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Apple has sold upwards of 80 million iPads. Google has sold maybe 250,000 Chromebooks. I rest my case.

  • Austin Wang

    The future is in tablet-laptop hybrids (sort of like the Surface, but better worked-out)