Aisle Check

on December 3, 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.