As we head toward Apple’s annual device announcement-palooza, it’s an interesting exercise to consider where we are in Steve Jobs’ vaunted, much quoted ‘Post-PC Era’. The fact of the matter is, that era never fully arrived, and it doesn’t look like it will, in the near- to medium- term future.
Much was made last year of the iPhone X, celebrated as Apple’s 10th anniversary iPhone model. But in just 18 months, we’ll be commemorating the 10th anniversary of the launch of the iPad. Initially met with skepticism by many analysts and tech reviewers, the iPad’s quick out-of-the gate success led to Jobs’ famous ‘post-PC era’ quote a mere two months later.
Tablets have had a good run, but sales have tailed off of late. I’d say they’ve had greater influence on the evolution of the smartphone and the PC, rather than leading to a significantly different nomenclature for what most of us carry around today. My Techpinions colleague Ben Bajarin says that Creative Strategies surveys indicate that only about 10% of tablet users have ‘replaced their PC’ — a number that has held steady for several years. And that 10% is concentrated in a handful of industries, such as real estate and construction. PC sales aren’t exactly surging, but they’re steady. Your average white collar professional today still carries around a smartphone and a laptop, with the tablet being an ancillary device, used primarily for media/content consumption.
Tablets have had a significant influence on the design of smartphones and PCs. They ushered in an era of smartphone screen upsizing, led primarily by Samsung, and now reinforced by the iPhone X and the expected announcement next week of a 6.5 inch iPhone model. For those who don’t want to swing both a smartphone and tablet, we have ‘Phablets’, most personified in the successful Galaxy Note series, and alternative-to-keyboard input devices such as the S Pen and the Apple Pencil. We’ve also seen the development of some hybrid tablet/PC devices, the most innovative and successful of which is Microsoft’s Surface line. But that product is competing more in the tablet category than in the PC category, with the exception of a few market segments. And, the growing number of portable PCs that feature touch screens and other tablet-like capabilities are eating a bit into tablet sales, particularly among the student set. The other personification of some aspect of the ‘post-PC’ area, I suppose, is the successful Chromebook line, which is more a reflection of the Cloud and near-pervasiveness of broadband connectivity.
It even appears that Apple doesn’t believe in the ‘post-PC’ mantra in the same way, given the steadily narrowing delta between the largest iPhone and the smallest iPad. Mainly, this is an effort to convince more users to have both an iPhone and an iPad, since I doubt that most users who have both would have a big phone and a small tablet.
So, the question is, what will change in 3 to 5 years? There will be tons of innovation of course, but I’m not expecting the average consumer or business professional to be carrying with them a dramatically different mix of device types or # of devices in the medium term. Even with pens that recognize and convert handwriting better and continual improvements in voice input, there’s still nothing that really beats the good ‘ol keyboard for productivity. And we’re still very locked into the Big Three of word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software. The main difference has been the move to the cloud, improved collaboration, and competitive products from Google.
There’s a lot of excitement around foldable screens, but that’s initially likely to be more about coolness of form factor and the admission that the largest phones/phablets are becoming unwieldy. There are also steady improvements in mirroring type capability, where the idea is that your portable device upsizes to a big screen when at home or work. But it still requires a fair bit of effort, plus ancillary devices (and their associated cables and chargers) to make it all really work. And among many business professionals, there’s still too much time spent in locations other than home or the office where PC-type functionality is required.
It is likelier that innovation in each category will continue to influence the other categories, just as there’s more touch capability on PCs, and more input options on tablets. But looking out to the early 2020s, I don’t see any dramatic shift in what the average person will be carrying with them on a day-to-day basis. A bunch more of us will have smartwatches or some other wearable. And if anything, the tablet segment might fall off somewhat, squeezed by bigger and more functional phones on one end, and by more versatile laptops on the other end. But among the market share leaders in each category (and there’s a fair bit of overlap), none are planning for any form of product obsolescence anytime soon. When we celebrate the 10th anniversary iPad in April 2020, we’ll be marveling at the significant improvements in speed, display, wireless connectivity, and so on. But PCs will continue to be the workhorse for most of us.