Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops Are The New “Other”

I have been following personal computing since the 1970s (yes, I am ancient). I was introduced to computing categories in the following order:

— First, there was the Desktop. The original Desktops were text input only. Then monitors were added. Then mouse input was added, which allowed Desktop computers to be user by a whole new class of users.

— Next there was the Notebook, which broke from the Desktop only in form factor. The Notebook made the Desktop transportable.

— Then there was the modern Smartphone, which broke from the Desktop and the Notebook both in form factor and in user input. While the form factor of the Notebook made it transportable, the form factor of the modern Smartphone made it mobile, pocketable and, with cellular and wifi connectivity, always connected to the internet. While input via a mouse was the preferred input metaphor for the Desktop and the Notebook, touch became the preferred input metaphor of the Smartphone.

— Then Steve Jobs introduced the modern Tablet and asked if there was room for a third category of personal computing device between the Notebook and the Phone. Note he did not identify the Desktop and the Notebook as different categories, which was probably correct. The Desktop and the Notebook are very similar to one another, while the gap then existing between the Notebook and the Smartphone was, and is, great. Steve Jobs was asking whether there was room in that gap for yet another category (the Tablet) and some are still asking that question today.

— Now, we see wearables as a potentially new computing category.


In addition to dividing personal computers by category — Desktop, Notebook, Tablet, Smartphone and Wearable — I have also always been careful to divide personal computers by user input.

While the Desktop and the Notebook use a mouse and a touchpad to manipulate a cursor, the Smartphone and the Tablet use the finger as the input device. Touch input is so different from cursor input, it required a radical re-writing of the computing operating system. Some, to this day, still do not recognize how very different — and how very incompatible — the mouse metaphor and the finger metaphor user inputs are.

Distinguishing between user inputs caused me to draw a bright line between Desktops/Notebooks that use cursor input and Tablets/Smartphone that use finger input.

Black device icons

Mea Culpa

Please pardon me for being late to the party, but I think I’ve been looking at personal computing all wrong. Because I divided personal computing by categories and because I divided personal computing by user input, I failed to see that what is really happening here is personal computing has divided into two camps: Smartphones…and everything else.

Smartphones Are The New PC

I’ve known for a while the Smartphone was a Super Computer in our Pocket and it is outselling other personal computing devices by more than 2 to 1.



However, I’ve never really given the Smartphone its due. I’ve always seen the Smartphone as being at the bottom of the personal computing pyramid, with Desktops at the top. Ben Bajarin says this is because we, who have grown up with personal computing, have a PC bias, and he is right. For most of those who did not grow up with desktops and notebooks, those devices are totally irrelevant. Old-timers like me find ourselves debating silly questions, like whether the tablet might be capable of replacing the Notebook when, in fact, the phone is more than capable of replacing the Notebook for many.

The Smartphone Is A Supercomputer In Our Pocket

For those in the West, the Smartphone combines many devices into one and for those who have never previously had access to computers, it gives them access to a plethora of devices and services they never had access to before.


The Smartphone puts previously unimaginable computing power at the service of the masses. While the richest nations benefit from the Smartphone, those who inhabit the poorest nations benefit most. Smartphones act as the great equalizer.


Some even postulate that “Mobile at work is the next Industrial Revolution“.

Running The Numbers

The are 6 billion people on Earth and it is estimated 5 billion of them will own Smartphones. Of that 5 billion, perhaps 2.5 billion will decide to own an additional Tablet, Notebook or Desktop.

You have a small screen in your pocket. You may also have a big one at home. It may be a laptop, desktop, or tablet, or some combination. ~ Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) 12/9/14

What this means is, in the very near future, everyone who has a computing device will have a Smartphone and only a subset of those Smartphone owners will have an additional computing device. And for many, the Smartphone will turn over every 2.5 years while the “additional” computing device may not turn over for 4 or 5 years.

Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops Competing Against One Another

While I have always thought of Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops as being separate categories, they really need to be lumped together as “Other”, i.e. other than Smartphones. Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops compete against one another for the coveted role of being our second computing device. Smartphones aren’t in competition with the “other” category. Computer owners may argue over whether to get a Tablet or Notebook or a Desktop but almost no one will think of getting a Tablet or a Notebook or a Desktop in lieu of a phone.

Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops Acting Like One Another

In addition, as different as Tablets and Notebooks and Desktops are, one from the other, they are also very alike in most of their use cases.

Looking at IBM US commerce data. Pretty clear it’s wrong to think of ‘mobile’ as smartphones + tablet. ~ Benedict Evans on Twitter


The Tablet form factor and input are completely different from the Notebook and the Desktop, but the Tablet’s use cases are far closer to the Notebook and the Desktop than they are to the phone.

The more I look at tablets the more I think of them as a continuation of the desktop to laptop transition, rather than part of ‘mobile’. Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) 12/9/14

Perhaps you came to a similar conclusion long ago. For me — and I suspect for many others — this is a whole new way of looking at Tablets, and at personal computers as a whole.

A New Definition Of Mobile

I think we need to redefine what we mean by “mobile”. For me at least, for a device to be categorized as “mobile”, it must be on one’s person or readily accessible at virtually all times and it must be connected to a cellular or WiFi network at virtually all times. Tablets should be removed from the mobile category and thought of, instead, as one of the three flavors of secondary computers available to those who can afford more than one computing device.


I, like many others, care about some computing categories because of what they were rather than because of what they are. Computing has re-aligned itself. It’s past time for my way of thinking about personal computing to do the same.

Published by

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?

25 thoughts on “Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops Are The New “Other””

  1. Good points! Computers are now mostly phones, and mobile is really phones. It changed very suddenly! One small comment on world population: there are now about 7.3 billion of us potential smartphone users.

  2. Welcome back and well said.

    Yeah, it seems that if you look at computing overall, “Other” fits quite well. We’ve said this here many times, PC’s have been oversold. (So have SUV’s, for that matter).

    I don’t know where the quote “If you had bought the computing power found inside an iPhone 5S in 1991….” came from, but it could really use some context. What would today’s hexa- and octacore Intel Processors have cost in 1991?

    Just coincidentally, out of curiosity, I ran Octane, Kraken and Sunspider on twelve of my machines (two were Android tablets, one of them a Nexus 9). It’s not even close. The best ARM I own, the Nexus 9 CPU, barely touches the lowly Celeron in a recent Chromebook on some (not all) measures. As expected, the i5 is smack in the middle of performance, significantly lagging the i7’s. Comparing i7 desktop to i7 mobile, the mobile versions lag desktop versions by 20-30%! This is mainly due to number of cores and clock speed, as well as the nature of the benchmarks. I find these benchmarks to be pretty “forgiving”.

    Yes, I’m a geek! 🙂

    My conclusions are really in the positive. The slowest chips have become “good enough” for most tasks but they have the mobility benefit. The best computer is the one you have with you!

    1. Regarding the quote on the value of the 5S in 1991:

      “This weekend, I saw a tweet flash by with an amazing claim: “If you had bought the computing power found inside an iPhone 5S in 1991, it would have cost you $3.56 million.”

      This statistic was originally put out by Bret Swanson, writing in Tech Policy Daily in February. He used a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on 1991 prices for memory, computing power, and bandwidth.

      It’s not precise, but it’s safe to say that a lot of us are carrying, in our pocket, a computer that would have been unspeakably costly in 1991.”


      1. Indeed. The context then, I assume, would be that todays desktop and notebook chips would likely have been in the billions of dollars. What’s incredible, is that we needed it then more than now. “Good enough” for most tasks has been achieved. We need NEW tasks, and that’s the top tier of innovation.

    1. It was a very experimental time, basically a really bad “after party” from the ’60’s. Now that was a party! Too bad I was too young to enjoy it.

  3. I’m wondering about a couple of things:
    1- Laptops and Desktops are, increasingly, touch-enabled. Reciprocally, Android and Windows devices (I don’t think iOS does ?) support mice (as well as pen, gamepad…). I rarely use a mouse on my phone (only when remoting to my PC), but I find myself taking a mini-mouse when I’m going to work on my tablet for more than a few minutes. As always, I think it’s not so much the device that makes a difference, but rather the use case and user. Except where such versatility is disallowed.
    2- Rather than form factor, isn’t cost and OS/Ecosystem ease of use the big differentiator ? For being daily in contact with tech ignoramuses, the main thing driving people to smartphones and tablets is ease of use and ease of “administration” (as in, there’s no admin required on tablets except for entering wifi passwords, as opposed to Windows and MacOS which are a pain to setup, keep updated and healthy…)

    1. “Rather than form factor, isn’t cost and OS/Ecosystem ease of use the big differentiator?” – Obarthelemy

      I’m not sure that I understand your question. Base models phones range from $50 to $600. Base model computers range from $200 (or less?) to $1,000. Base model tablets run from $100 to $500. People certainly select devices by cost, but I’m not sure they distinguish between smartphones, tablets, notebooks and desktops by cost.

    2. “Rather than form factor, isn’t cost and OS/Ecosystem ease of use the
      big differentiator ? For being daily in contact with tech ignoramuses,
      the main thing driving people to smartphones and tablets is ease of use
      and ease of “administration””

      I think you’re missing the forest for the trees. Form factor is a (very important) ingredient, ease of use is an ingredient, but to grok the smartphone you need to look at the whole recipe.

      The brilliance of the modern touchscreen smartphone is that it takes something you’ve already got in your pocket (mobile phone), and uses silicon and software to turn it into a multipurpose device that can replace half a dozen or more devices that you might also have been planning on carrying in your pocket or bag — camera, music player, GPS, clock, gameboy, remote control, day planner, etc. I specify touchscreen smartphone because while we had cameraphones and gameplaying phones, etc before then, it took the touch screen and the software behind it to make all those features into something that actually got used (compare finding stuff in the level-on-level of submenus on a feature phone to tapping on an app). This alone ensured that the touchscreen smartphone was destined to become the new standard type of phone.

      On top of that, you have the various app stores, ensuring that the phone can assume all kinds of previously unthought-of uses and take the place of unthought-of tools that you would otherwise have to take with you (eg, the apple ads that show their devices taking the place of jeweler’s magnifying lenses, veterinarian’s stethoscopes, etc).

  4. Another great article indeed. Learning what I have from reading posts on this site, I wouldn’t be surprised if computing devices consist of wearables, smartphones, tablets, and desktops. As tablets get more powerful / capable, I think they’ll have the capacity to replace notebooks.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Shameer.

      My knee-jerk reaction to your comment about notebooks would be to counter it by claiming that notebooks have a future. I’m using a notebook to write my articles. But perhaps I’m wrong. I still think that notebooks and tablets are very different from one another, but perhaps more and more notebook enthusiasts will be satisfied with a tablet and an attached keyboard.

      1. Mobility/Form factor and video gaming aside, it used to be that if you wanted more than a modicum of computing power, you had to get a desktop, and laptops were solely for low end computing tasks. That’s no longer the case. Now desktops are more and more for those who require massive amounts of compute and/or on-machine storage. Laptops are more than adequate for just about every limited computing task (as opposed to unlimited tasks that will slurp up as much compute as you provide and ask for more). So i’d say laptops are the new desktops. Desktops are becoming a constellation of tiny niche markets (mostly gaming and workstation uses). Tablets with keyboards or chromebooks are the new low-end computing machines.

        Again, all this is aside from mobility, talking about devices that rarely if ever move here. Die hard desktop advocates might prefer the modularity and interchangeable-parts construction of the typical desktop, but the all-in-one nature of laptops with nothing to connect, no cable management, compact and put-away-able form factor, is winning in the marketplace.

  5. “Computer owners may argue over whether to get a Tablet or Notebook or a
    Desktop but almost no one will think of getting a Tablet or a Notebook
    or a Desktop in lieu of a phone.”

    I’m here to witness for you. My iPhone got stolen six months before my contract was up. I thought I could get by with an iPad Mini, always-on cell connection, Skype-Out, etc. I lasted exactly five days and bought an old iPhone on Ebay. When you’re right, you’re right.

    1. Thank you for the “testimonial”, marco1959. 🙂

      Phones are becoming indispensable and Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops are become options available to those who require specialized tools. And although I believe what I just wrote, I still find it hard to wrap my mind around that new reality.

    2. Well yeah, the phone aspect is still the most important part. I would even use a feature phone, just for calling, along with a separate tablet or laptop in your case.

  6. “While the Desktop and the Notebook use a mouse and a touchpad to manipulate a cursor, the Smartphone and the Tablet use the finger as the input device. ”

    That’s true if you are thinking of Apple, but Microsoft’s mood for Windows is obviously is that the desktop and notebook are supposed to use both mouse and touch. Now I think Microsoft’s planning is wrong here, but that doesn’t make it go away.

    1. I don’t think they are completely wrong here, just mostly in how they are implementing their idea. I have myself and seen others absentmindedly reached out to touch the screen of my laptop like a tablet.


  7. I was curious about what a 1995 (instead of a 1991) system would cost to get comparatively equivalent CPU/Drive/RAM as a 2015 iPhone 6+. My back of the envelope calculations are about $310,000 worth of Pentium 90 systems to equal 1 top of the line iPhone 6+ at $950. Please critique my assumptions if you are interested.

    A Pentium 90 MHz system in 1995 was about $3000.
    ~750 MB drive
    8 MB RAM + 1 MB Video RAM

    iPhone 6+ in 2015 is about $950
    1.3 GHz 2 cores
    1 GB RAM
    128 GB drive

    Need ~30 P90 Systems for equivalent CPU performance
    The 90 MHz Pentium makes it MHz equivalent to about 15 1.3 GHz ARM cores. Multiply by 2 because of the dual core A8. This is the least accurate since a modern ARM core is also faster per clock than a Pentium core. But being conservative here we get:

    Need ~170 P90 Systems for equivalent Drive storage
    Simple ratio here, you need ~170 750 MB drives to make 128 GB.

    Need ~111 P90 Systems for equivalent RAM (+video RAM)
    Another simple ratio. Approximately 111 9 MB systems to get 1 GB RAM.

    If you just average the 3 estimates you get:
    ~$310,000 To get the same combined performance from a 1995 P90 as from a 2015 iPhone 6+

    Or about 330 times the cost of a top of the line iPhone 6+. Of course included with the $3000 for each Pentium system is duplicated software costs such as the cost of Windows for each system. On the other hand a 1.3 GHz dual core 64-bit ARM CPU is significantly faster than a mere 30 32-bit Pentium-90.

    1. In 1995, you may recall, there was a heated debate between RISC and CISC instruction sets. CISC ultimately won that war by adopting some of RISC’s best practices. it ran instructions faster, but needed more instructions to achieve the same result. ARM is RISC, it would lose clock for clock versus a Pentium. At best, it’s a tie. So first assumption is okay, if we neglect any parallelism.
      No opinion on VRAM estimate, though RAM is but one contributor of performance.
      On storage, iPhone wins hands down, even at that price, because it’s RAM and not mechanical media. Including the time factors would increase that $510,000 by a factor of at least five, probably much more. Even if you RAID-ed all those disks (ridiculous), if I remember correctly, bus speeds were 800 MHz then. So 800 MHz saturated the transfer rate. Today SATA III is at 6 GHz. That’s a factor of 7.5!
      Number of 1995 desktops required to match current desktops it’s even more remarkable.

      1. “RISC ran instructions faster, but needed more instructions to achieve the same result. ARM is RISC, it would lose clock for clock versus a Pentium. ”

        No. The generational improvements on the design of CPUs makes this statement incorrect. The 1995 Pentium was the original P5; Intel’s first x86 32-bit superscalar design. It had a simple dual integer pipeline. The whole CPU was implemented in 3.2 million transistors. Compare this with the 2 billion transistors in the A8. Those transistors allow for large cache and a much wider superscalar design, much better branch prediction and a whole host of other improvements that allow for a much higher IPC rate.

        Under no reasonable analysis would the A8 have less instructions per cycle than an original P5 Pentium. RISC vs CISC would not play a significant role.

        1. I can accept that from a timeline point of view. If we move up through the Pentium Series, a matter of two years, it does become true. It was a very ramped up time. Months made a difference.

          Fast forward to now, and RISC has lost, except maybe in hugely multiprocessing scenarios of hundreds or even thousands of chips. Even there, you see CISC chips being used. Oh, and in mobile RISC is winning due to power advantage. It wins on performance per watt.

          1. Depends on your definition of “lost”. All x86 designs now decode their instructions into RISC like micro ops and run with a RISC super scalar core. ARM dominates the mobile world and is almost purely a RISC design. The surprise that shouldn’t have been was that the decode logic going from CISC to RISC takes up vanishingly smaller and smaller portions of a CPUs transistor budget.

            Before the original P5 came out there was serious debate on whether it was even possible to do a superscalar design with CISC. Obviously in hindsight and knowledge of Moore’s Law it should have been obvious what direction Intel would take but I can’t recall anyone predicting it.

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