Has the Tablet’s Window of Opportunity Closed?

I’ve been testing Apple’s latest iPad Pro 10.5-inch tablet. It’s a very good piece of hardware, and when iOS 11 moves from beta to full release later this year, the software will represent a significant leap forward, too. With the launch of this product, Apple jumpstarted the debate about whether an iPad can replace a Mac or PC. But as good as the iPad Pro is, I can’t help but think that all the hand-wringing about tablets versus notebooks is just misplaced angst. Today’s users have already chosen their platform, and future generations will likely choose neither, opting instead for increasingly powerful smartphones that will usher in brand new ways of computing.

iPad Pro: Accelerated Iteration
Apple launched the first iPad in 2010, and just seven years later this new iPad Pro represents a stunning amount of product evolution. The A10X Fusion chip offers processing power on par with some PC CPUs. The 10.5-inch screen includes new True Tone and ProMotion technologies. The first calibrates the screen’s colors based on the ambient light conditions. The second ramps up or down the screen refresh rate based on the content and also makes using the optional Apple Pencil feel even more natural than before. The optional Smart Keyboard case makes it possible to bang through typing chores much faster then tapping on glass. As with previous iterations, the iPad Pro continues to offer plenty of battery life, and none of these new features diminish that. My unit includes LTE, which means unlike every PC or Mac I’ve ever owned, the iPad Pro is always connected.

The new features coming in iOS 11 are too numerous to list, but many of them are focused on making the iPad more productive. I’m running the public beta, and capabilities such as a viewable file system, support for drag and drop, and improved multitasking mean that I can accomplish more things than ever before on the iPad. But for me, it still can’t replace my notebook.

I’m a long-time tablet fan, and I use an iPad every day, usually after work, to consume content. I’m hooked, and will likely use a tablet for the rest of my days in some capacity. There are clearly many others like me, but I do wonder if the confluence of events back in 2010/2011 that caused many of us to pick up a tablet—namely a PC market that saw innovation slow to a crawl and a smartphone market made up of products with sub 4-inch screens—have now passed. With both of these challenges now addressed, where does this leave the tablet in terms of grabbing new users?

What’s Next?
Apple CEO Tim Cook has long argued that an iPad is the best computer for most people because it is less complex and therefore easier to use than even a Mac. It’s a compelling idea, but one whose window of opportunity may have already closed. Many long-time PC and Mac users may love their iPads for consuming content, but ultimately even the new iOS 11 represents too many restrictions for people who have lived with the freedom a full desktop OS. For these folks, the tablet is additive at best. And in emerging markets where the PC isn’t well-entrenched, people have already chosen the smartphone as their primary computing device. It has a large screen, plenty of compute power, and it’s always connected.

Ultimately, I expect the smartphone—or some future iteration of it—to replace both the PC and the tablet. In the near term that means phones will likely take on more desktop-like capabilities when needed, but longer term it means more fundamental changes. Eventually, augmented reality technologies will mean we’re no longer tapping on glass or staring at 5-, 10-, or 15-inch screens. Some think standalone AR devices will replace smartphones, but I tend to think the smartphone will still power most of these experiences. In fact, I’d argue that at some point smartphone screens may even begin to shrink, before they disappear altogether, replaced by accessories worn on the wrist, ears, and eyes, that serve up a wide range of augmented operating environments and experiences. In fact, Apple will likely lead this charge with iterations of today’s Apple Watch, AirPods, and its long-rumored glasses.

Of course, not everyone will be interested in embracing the smartphone as the one device to rule them all. Which means there will still be a place in the market for notebooks and tablets for years to come. And so Apple’s focus on making the iPad more capable today certainly isn’t a wasted effort. However, it is hard not to see the smartphone as the ultimate computing platform of the future.

Published by

Tom Mainelli

Tom Mainelli has covered the technology industry since 1995. He manages IDC's Devices and Displays group, which covers a broad range of hardware categories including PCs, tablets, smartphones, thin clients, displays, and wearables. He works closely with tech companies, industry contacts, and other analysts to provide in-depth insight and analysis on the always-evolving market of endpoint devices and their related services. In addition to overseeing the collection of historical shipment data and the forecasting of shipment trends in cooperation with IDC's Tracker organization, he also heads up numerous primary research initiatives at IDC. Chief among them is the fielding and analysis of IDC's influential, multi-country Consumer and Commercial PC, Tablet, and Smartphone Buyer Surveys. Mainelli is also driving new research at IDC around the technologies of augmented and virtual reality.

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