Aisle Check

Bob O'Donnell / December 3rd, 2013

As a technology industry analyst, I spend a lot of time on airplanes both domestically and internationally—demonstrated by my freshly minted United Airlines Premiere Million Miler Card. On the majority of those flights, I make a point to walk up and down the aisles of the plane, glancing at what types of devices people are using. While it certainly doesn’t qualify as a rigorous or scientific research methodology, I find it to be a fascinating way to see what’s hot and what’s not. It’s also an interesting way to get a sense of not only what people have bought, but what they actually find important enough to carry with them and use.

Over the last few years—probably to no one’s surprise—I’ve seen a lot of tablets, most of them featuring a fruit logo on their shiny silver back side. People were using their iPads to watch movies, play games, read e-mails and even run other kinds of applications. I’ve seen a few other tablets too—often Kindle Fires—as well as a reasonable number of black-and-white eReaders, like Barnes & Noble Nooks as well as black and white Kindles, and a reasonable sampling of smartphones of different brands. Other than eBooks, most all of these other tablets were used almost exclusively to watch videos, from what I could tell, whereas the smartphones were primarily used to play games. Interestingly, for a long time, it seemed like the odd man out was actually the notebook PC.

But things have changed quite a bit over the last 18 months or so. Now, as I walk down the aisles of my flights what I see primarily are notebooks—and lots of them. The number of tablets—while still reasonable—has made a noticeable decline, particularly as a percentage of the total devices in use. I’m not quite sure when this phenomena started, but during my last several trips I was actually surprised by how many notebooks there were in active use—with most all of them being used for work purposes: e-mail, presentations, spreadsheets and other types of business-focused applications. Now, this could just be a reflection of people focusing more on work as the economy improves, but I actually think it portends a bit of a renaissance for business notebook PCs. Indeed, the most recent US commercial PC shipment numbers from big data houses like IDC and Gartner show several quarters of positive growth—this after several years of declines.

The mix of notebooks in use is interesting as well. The vast majority are traditional clamshell form factor Windows 7-based PCs and a fair number of them appear to be very non-Ultrabook like (a polite way of saying pretty big and thick). Of course you’ll also see a decent number of Macbooks (both Pros and Airs), a few Windows XP-based systems and an increasing number of Windows 8/8.1-based PCs—though I’ve seen very little touch-based usage. I’ve also yet to see very many 2-in-1 devices which, in theory at least, are attempting to bridge the gap between notebooks and tablets. All told, it’s frankly a pretty fair reflection of today’s total PC installed base.

But the key point here is that—far from being dead—business notebooks appear to be very much on the rise. It’s almost as if after people finished their initial tablet “flings,” they’ve rediscovered the practical value a notebook offers—particularly for business travel. That’s not to say PCs won’t continue to see challenges from tablets, phablets and other interesting new form factors, but it’s going to be interesting to watch how the device wars continue to evolve. If you want to see where things are headed yourself, just do an aisle check of your own on your next flight.

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
  • steve_wildstrom

    Could it be the increasing availability of Wi-Fi that is driving more use of notebooks on planes? Wireless access on planes makes it possible to access new mail and new documents and may be leading passengers to do more of the work that is best done on a laptop rather than a tablet. This is just a guess, but I suspect there may be something to it.

    • jfutral

      That would explain why I see almost no laptops on the overseas flights I’ve been on.

      Joe

      • Bill Smith

        I see a decent number on my flights to Europe and India. Are you in first class or rear cabin, typically? The purpose for flying is quite striated.

        In coach, you’ll see mostly scrappy business guys and leisure travelers. Tablets, e-book readers and “business” laptops doing business stuff tend to surface here, though not as long for trips over the pond.

        In business and first, you have both the idle rich and the high-power business folk, who can afford upwards of 6K to cross the ocean because they intend to make 100K when they land.

        • jfutral

          I work in the arts. I often feel like I am _under_ the rear cabin. My point was more that, to my knowledge, there is not yet much wifi on transoceanic flights. I know it is rolling out, but I haven’t been on any of those flights.

          Just a tour schmuck.
          Joe

          • Bill Smith

            Joe,

            Based on your comments here, you sound like much more than a tour schmuck. Perhaps you’re the occasional schlimazel (as am I), but I’m betting that you’re the sort who can take your arts background, plus great insights like the ones found here on TechPinions and earn yourself a few first class seats, if that were important to you.

      • DarwinPhish

        The longer the flight the more important battery life becomes.

    • Joe_Winfield_IL

      That’s a great observation. It’s also worth noting that air fares have dramatically increased over the last few years as the airlines have finally consolidated enough to the point where they actually have price discipline. Between the increased fares and the bonanza of fees, I imagine business travelers are making up an increasing percentage of the total cabin than even a couple years ago.

  • jfutral

    As a frequent traveller myself, I think this is also a reflection on what type of traveler still needs to fly—the business traveler—vs the vacation or otherwise non-business traveler who is finding other transportation.

    From my observations, this also changes depending on what kind of flight. I saw almost no laptops on a recent trip to Germany. But quite a few on domestic and Canadian flights.

    Like you, I saw those laptops being used almost exclusively for work purposes, and primarily for spreadsheets. I did see one recently watching a video. That was certainly the odd man out.

    All in all, though, phones and tablets still rule the air from my observations and quite handily.

    Joe

    • Bill Smith

      Joe,

      I agree. One must remember that most travelers are corporate travelers, who have their computing devices provided (and dictated) by large organizations. Most of those are quite insistent on “business” laptops (clamshells, ThinkPad style) and are most likely running Windows 7. Few companies would splurge on a convertible; most corporate IT guys are trying to put their respective feet down against tablets and BYOD.

      You won’t see that many leisure travelers on their way to Germany, India or Japan. Therefore, far fewer tablets and newer devices. Many more laptops running Excel.

      This will only change as you start to see tablet applications that handle business needs BETTER than laptops. For example, I do see a good number of people working on presentations on iPad during flights. There’s no killer app for tablet/business yet.

      For American/Canadian flights, I typically see iPad’s in first class, with a much stronger bias toward Kindles and other Android-based devices in the rear cabin.

      I would LOVE to see a Wildstrom, Bajarin or Kirk piece on what possible killer tablet/convertible laptop applications for business might be. C’mon guys…use those big brains and tell us what’s coming!

      • benbajarin

        Bill, I’ll do better than that and I will show you. For Insiders, I will invite subscribers to listen, and follow along on their iPads as I use a new kind of presentation tool to show data and interact with listeners / watches to tell a story through this new kind of interactive presentation. Exclusively on the iPad.

        • Bill Smith

          Very much looking forward to it! Per chance is this “Perspective”, which is used to great benefit by Horace Deidu during his AirShow lectures?

          Not to diminish in any way how much I’d love to see your presentation, but my question was more along the lines of productivity applications for business (e.g. spreadsheets and accounting packages were a boon for desktop computing).

          While I have your attention, I am awed by your work; I’m a management consultant for a number of the companies you discuss; sometimes your articles are so dead on that we’ve literally discussed the same viewpoint with our customers a few days earlier. I’ve even found myself quoting you to a few CEO’s. Every time I see your name on a new article, my subscription doubles in value. I love the podcast too! Maybe you can get Wildstrom on at some point?

          Extreme fan. Most days, I get more out of this $50 subscription than my $1,000 subscription to SemiAccurate, or my $15,000 subscription to StratFor.

          • benbajarin

            Yes, it is using perspective. Which in the process of creating presentations does have some pretty unique tools. I’ve been working with them on this latest version that will let me do a broadcast of an interactive presentation so that is what I am going to offer insiders.

            I do agree with you in theory that we need the ‘Visicalc’ for the tablet. Although what is interesting is the angle that the tablet is a blank slate and will mean many things to many people. For example Paper by FiftyThree is already the ‘visicalc’ for the artistic community. Apps like DJay, Audiobus, Figure by propellerhead, and a number of more musically focused apps are the ‘visicalc’ for the music community. So all these exist and are game changers for them. We look at this and think about it for the business community but it is expanding much past that demographic.

            Thanks, also for the kind words on insiders. I wanted quality analysis to be affordable so that is why we did it. Glad you hear you are getting value from it.

            Looking forward to chatting more.

          • benbajarin

            Hey Bill. Do you mind if I use your quote about Insiders on the sign up page as a testimonial?

          • Bill Smith

            As long as it’s an accurate quote and you don’t mention the name of my company, go ahead. I sincerely want to see TechPinions thrive.

          • benbajarin

            Was thinking this bit.

            “I get more out of this $50 subscription than my $1,000 subscription to SemiAccurate, or my $15,000 subscription to StratFor.”

            Does that work?

          • Bill Smith

            That’s great. Hope it draws in some subscribers… I’m Bill Smith and I endorse this message. (ha!)

          • benbajarin

            Thanks, really appreciate it.

      • jfutral

        Then there is American Airlines who provide iPads to their business class passengers.

        Joe

        • Bill Smith

          Very good point, Joe.

          Though I haven’t done any serious investigation, I would also note that I’ve only heard of airlines passing out iPads. Is it a sign of the prestige associated with Apple tablets that I have yet to hear of an airline carrier passing out Android/Samsung tablets or Kindle Fire’s?

      • DarwinPhish

        Mobility itself is the killer app.

        • Bill Smith

          To an extent, yes. Mobility is the killer app for the product category.

          Try using Excel on a Surface Pro. That’s not a killer app; that’s barely usable.

          • DarwinPhish

            My point is that tablets really do not need a killer app and I doubt there will ever be a tablet use case that is as dominant as office apps are for desktops.

          • Bill Smith

            My friend, it’s quite likely you’ll eat those words.

            First, never say never.

            Secondly, the horizon of forever keeps getting closer by exponential leaps and bounds!

          • jfutral

            And wouldn’t it be great if someone, inspired by new UIs, developed a new way of financial calculation and modeling? Spreadsheets are great, but it is one of the most cumbersome interfaces around. I refuse to believe this is the best we can come up with.

            Joe

          • steve_wildstrom

            The world would welcome a better idea, especially as we spend more and more time on devices with smaller displays.

            The spreadsheet has been with us for 35 years now and it began as a metaphor for the spreadsheets I used to use doing stat work in college: big ledger-size ruled pads.

          • Bill Smith

            I’ll go further and say that it’s not just the new UI that someone should be thinking of. When applications like Excel were created, there was only sneaker net, not the current all-pervading mobile networking that we have now, and everything was single-user or it was a green screen program on a mainframe.

            Ben Bajarin mentioned Perspective, which takes advantage of peer-to-peer networking to create a new presentation experience. I can’t think of any enterprise applications that are trying to push that edge. We have 64-bit quad-core smart phones that can do GigaFLOPS of computation, while having near-instant communication to billions of other computers and devices around the world. Unless I’m missing something, nobody is taking advantage of all that from an enterprise perspective.

            Analysis (like Excel) hasn’t changed for decades. Word processing hasn’t changed for decades. Databases have only changed in terms of where the data is stored/redundancy/distribution/standardization of query languages, but not conceptually.

            I think we’re primed for a revolution, and it’s gonna be huge, like the discovery of computing all over again.

            As Steve Wildstrom points out below, the spreadsheet has been around for far more than 35 years. We’ve outgrown these dated metaphors.

  • AhmadZainiChia

    I think a big reason is the growth of thin/light notebooks, especially the Macbook Air.

  • Defendor

    “…most recent US commercial PC shipment numbers from big data houses like IDC and Gartner show several quarters of positive growth…”

    Really, I must have missed this. I am still seeing the opposite:

    http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_24648698/global-pc-shipments-see-worst-drop
    Global PC shipments see worst drop ever

    “Worldwide shipments of the once-mighty PC will see their most precipitous decline
    ever this year, with even more bad news to come in 2014. PC shipments,
    which just months ago were expected to fall 9.7 percent, instead will
    drop 10.1 percent this year, representing “by far the most severe yearly
    contraction on record,” according to research firm International Data
    Corp. And IDC expects global PC sales to fall an additional 3.8 percent
    in 2014.”

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