The Tablet Computer is Growing Up

Ben Bajarin / February 27th, 2017

I vividly remember when the iPad first hit the scene. Much of the commentary at the time ranged from confused, to skeptical, to wildly optimistic and then some. However, very few people truly grasped the underlying shift to the touch-based computing paradigm that was underway. In fact, throughout a good portion of the tablet computer’s life, the form factor has continually fallen short of its full potential. Most were convinced this device could never be a productivity machine. These folks missed the broader reality that many millions of people were being extremely productive on their smartphones using a touch-based operating system and generations of young people would grow up with an intense familiarity and comfort level using touch-based systems as their primary computing platforms. It was this broader shift of workflows, from a mouse and pointer to ones which used touch, that I articulated in one of my first public columns back in 2010. “From Click to Touch – iPad & the Era of Touch Computing”:

It is interesting to have observed the barrier to computing a keyboard and mouse have been for so long. I was always amazed at how older generations stumbled with a keyboard and mouse, or how the biggest hurdle of learning computers for my children was the keyboard and mouse. Even my youngest, who had issues with the mouse and is just learning to read, is operating the iPad with ease and engaging in many learning games she couldn’t on the PC with the traditional peripherals. Think about the developing world and the people who never grew up with computers the way we in America have with a mouse and keyboard. How much more quickly will they embrace touch computing?

This point, which I have expanded on and further articulated through the years, has served as the basis of my bullish view on the tablet’s potential. Touch-based operating systems, built from the mobile/smartphone experience, eliminate the complexity that exists with Windows and macOS and makes computing more accessible to the masses who are, admittedly, not the most technology literate people. Mobile operating systems like iOS and Android abolish the need for tech literacy classes yet still yield the same potential end results in creativity and productivity as any desktop OS.

In the years since the iPad’s launch, the broad observation of the power in touch/mobile operating systems has manifested itself with Windows and the PC ecosystem creating products more like tablets, Apple with the iPad Pro, and now Samsung with the Galaxy Tab S3 just announced at Mobile World Congress looking to make tablets more like PCs.

However, now we are several years down the road. My concern is tablets have not gained as much ground on the PC as the PC has gained on tablets. It’s true iPad has tens of thousands of dedicated apps and both iPad and Android tablets are utilized in enterprises for mobile workforce computers but, when it comes to the average consumer, they are still not turning from their PCs to iPads or Android tablets as a replacement. In a research study we did in the second half of 2016 on consumers usage and sentiment around PCs and tablets, 67% of consumers had not even considered replacing their PC/Mac with an iPad or Android tablet.

As you may have seen, the tablets trend line is not encouraging.

While it is true the PC trendline isn’t much better, over the past year or so a fascinating counter-trend has been happening in the PC industry. The average selling price of PCs is actually increasing. In the midst of the tablet decline, many consumers are realizing they still need a traditional laptop or desktop and are spending more on such computers than in many years past. Our research suggests a key reason is because consumers now understand they want a PC which will last since they will likely keep it for 6 years or more. They understand spending to get a quality product, one that won’t break frequently or be a customer support hassle, is in their best interests and they are spending more money on PCs than ever before. This single insight is a key source of my concern for the tablet category.

Another key data point in the tablet and PC conversation is how the tablet continues to fall by the wayside when it comes to the most important device to consumers. While the smartphone is the obvious choice consumer pick as most important, the tablet still ranks lower than both desktops and laptops — this is true of iPad owners as well. Tablets and the iPad have yet to overwhelmingly move from luxury to necessity for the vast majority.

I’m still as bullish as ever on the tablet’s potential. However, my concern is consumers may be extremely stubborn and lean heavily on past behavior and familiarity with PCs instead of going through the process to replicate the workflows and activities they did on their PCs and transition to tablets. This is a year where Apple needs to take great strides in software around iOS for iPad if they want the iPad to become more than it is today and truly rival the PC in the minds of the consumer. While tablets have no doubt grown up, they still have a little more growing to do if they want to truly challenge the PC and Mac.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio
  • obarthelemy

    Re: the ease of Touch vs keyboard + mouse, I think there’s a bit of confusion going on between easy interface and easy tasks. Sure, touch is a nicely immediate way to select the white wabbit, but for more classic office work, keyboard+mouse is still better, even dear old mom takes out her BT keyboard for emails.
    It’s nice to have the extra option of Touch, which is very well suited for a lot of apps/tasks, but mostly new, mobile-era apps. I think there are rather few “old” apps that lend themselves well to Touch. Not zero, but not most either. I think it’s mainly that with the democratization of computers, Office work is less dominant.

    What I still find more unfathomable is how Apple sees no way to have a variant of their Touch UI for keyboard+mouse (which MS and Google are managing rather nicely), while having no issue using a single UI (with a bit of morphing) from 4.7″ to 12.9″.

  • Glaurung-Quena

    “As you may have seen, the tablets trend line is not encouraging.”

    Have you seen Above Avalon’s breakout that shows that full size ipads are selling steady and it’s the mini whose sales are cratering? I would assume that the trendline for all tablets is following a similar trajectory.

    Which suggests that 10″ tablets are selling steadily to people who are using them as either full PC replacements or as more comfortable and versatile standins for all but the most text/CPU heavy tasks… and that therefore there really isn’t need for the concern you are feeling.

    “Our research suggests a key reason is because consumers now understand they want a PC which will last since they will likely keep it for 6
    years or more.”

    Are you sure you’re interviewing a representative demographic, rather than one top heavy with tech heads and early adopters? Because my experience is that ordinary non-technical people have been keeping their computers until they break for quite some time now.

    • benbajarin

      Yep, that is why its 6 plus years that they keep the PC.

    • klahanas

      A six year span is reasonable considering the pace progress. Unless there is a sudden quantum leap in performance, such as with SSDs, the next machine takes a few years to feel faster. Only on a desktop, a non-Apple desktop mind you, can you upgrade an improve components to add that SSD or video card.

    • obarthelemy

      I’m a bit confused by that 6yrs remark too. Since CPUs are standing still, to me a PC is future-proof if it is modular. Yet market trends towards laptops, 2-in-1, AIOs à la iMac, even slots-less desktops à la Mac mini and NUC go contrary to that lifespan idea. Does “6yrs” mean “won’t fail and has a bit of extra RAM, storage & CPU” and that’s it ? I/O is where it’s at, and has been for a while !

      In the last 6 years, we’ve added SSD, HDMI 2.0a, TB3, h.265, USB-C, USB3gen2, maybe a bit of RAM. The only way a 6yrs old computer has that today is via expansion cards. I have no idea what’s coming up in 6 yrs, certainly more of the above since not all of it is widespread yet, then maybe VR – that requires a slot for a vidcard; M2 SSD – that requires an M2 slot, HDMI 2.1+ – ditto, vidcard.

      • Space Gorilla

        We have two iMacs from 2009 running the latest MacOS. Both iMacs handle lots of image editing and audio/video tasks, and both still work great. We did swap the hard drive in one, upgraded to 2 terabytes. So that’s coming up on 8 years of use, with no need to buy anything new. Well made computers can last a long time, and be perfectly usable the whole time.

      • Oluseyi

        > The only way a 6yrs old computer has that today is via expansion cards.

        Or adapters.

        • obarthelemy

          ??? You know of adapters that add TB3, USB-C, M2, RAM, USB3g2… ?
          And even if in theory an SSD or a vidcard can go through TB2 in practice that never happens, for cost scale and compatibility reasons.

          • Oluseyi

            The point about adapters is that they can provide short-term extensions to interface compatibility, not that they are a replacement for new hardware. It wasn’t an attempt to “correct” you.

  • klahanas

    “I’m still as bullish as ever on the tablet’s potential. However, my concern is consumers may be extremely stubborn and lean heavily on past behavior and familiarity with PCs instead of going through the process to replicate the workflows and activities they did on their PCs and transition to tablets.”

    Is it the consumers that are stubborn…..?
    What’s wrong with, “it is what it is”? Why “must” they transition to tablets?

    Did it occur to you that those consumers for whom a PC was overkill in cost and complexity, are easily satisfied with what they have and don’t need anything more?

    • benbajarin

      Yep, I’ve worked through all that intellectually.

      • klahanas

        So is it “emotional”? 😉

      • Chris_Kez

        As they say in school, please show your work for full credit 😉

  • Defendor

    Actually owning a tablet, made me a lot less bullish on the future of tablets.

    IMO, touch is a terrible choice for a UI. It is more work, slower and less precise than a KB/Mouse. It leaves you with a constantly dirty screen covered in fingerprints.

    We use touch on phones because it has to fit in our pocket. While physical KBs were tried, they are so small as to be terrible anyway.

    But outside of a phone, and it’s need to fit in your pocket, why choose touch?

    These days my tablet is relegated to reading. I haven’t found any other application that isn’t better on the desktop.

    Even for reading. Touch is still problematic. I always look for software that has page advance on the volume buttons.

    If there is any future for tablets, IMO it will be in 2-in-1’s. Which are really more like laptops with a touch screen.

    Between big phones, and 2-in-1’s there is a small niche that has grown nearly irrelevant IMO.

    When my current tablet eventually dies, I will have a bigger phone, and a 2-in-1. There gap between those is simply too tiny to bother with for me.

    • klahanas

      I’ve always maintained that touch paradoxically is less sensorial because we lost texture. As you say, for a phone that needs to fit in your pocket, yet still have a large screen, touch is the compromise.

  • Chris_Kez

    “Mobile operating systems like iOS and Android abolish the need for tech literacy classes yet still yield the same potential end results in creativity and productivity as any desktop OS.”

    Maybe in some general sense this is true, but I can’t tell you how many times non-techie relatives of all ages have asked for support with seemingly basic stuff on iOS and Android. I hope you’re talking to people of all ages and engagement levels in your work, and basing your conclusions on that.

    • klahanas

      But if you have other reasons for being tech literate, mobile is often inadequate.

    • obarthelemy

      I think there’s a fair bit of confusion between “Mobile” and “Modern”. It’s not the mobileness that makes Android simpler, it’s the Home and Back buttons, the single full-screen window, the walled garden with no need for an admin, the very limited support for peripherals (no driver hell), the support for Touch, the simpler more limited apps…
      Windows’ “Metro” mode on the desktop has all of that too, and got a bad reception only because it upset Windows old-timers ; if you start from a clean slate, it’s fine, while not specifically “Mobile”, just “Modern” (ah !)

      • klahanas

        Simpler alone is not good. Simpler as a reversibly selectable option is fine.

        “Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, but not simpler” – A. Einstein

        Which I interpret as, make it simple without artificially diminishing what it is. To me, that is both art and tech. The rest is BS.

        • obarthelemy

          I used to be a heavy user of MS Word, all the way back to the DOS version (it was much more elegant than WordPerfect and WordStar back then), but utterly bewildered as to why so many people were using it when MS Works or even WordPad did all most people needed. These days I think I use Notepad more than any of the above.

          Simpler with no “moar powa!” switch is fine for most people.

          PS for non-windowers:
          Word everyone knows, rich word-processing adept at complex theses, even simple DTP.
          Works’s wordprocessor was about equivalent to today’s Apple’s and Google’s word-processing apps. Good for shorter docs, OK with layout, but not for long docs that need indexing/TOC, styles, external merge… Very basic macros.
          WordPad is the most basic word processor possible: fonts, alignment, spacing… That’s it, maybe image handling ?
          Notepad is a (bad) text editor. No formatting aside from font size.

          • klahanas

            No argument, it’s the “simple only” to which I object. As you point out, there was Word, WP, WordStar, Notepad, Works, etc. that could all run on the same machine. Tablets are like artificially restricting It to, say…., Works.

  • Chris_Kez

    “However, my concern is consumers may be extremely stubborn…”

    This is a good concern. People by nature are stubborn. I remain bullish on tablets myself, but for the next generation of consumers. I don’t think adults have who have grown up learning to “deal with” PCs are going to make the effort to re-learn stuff on tablets.

    And don’t forget that its not just *what* people do on PCs, but also *how* they do it. For many people and many tasks, it is simply preferable to use keyboard, mouse and monitor. Sure, this was a stumbling block for older generations who had to learn to use these as adults– and it will always be tough for kids who lack the physical dexterity and mental abstraction required– but once learned they will remain superior in many cases.

    • obarthelemy

      I wouldn’t call it stubbornness but rather stickiness. Once you’ve found a solution that does what you want, any new solution has to be significantly better, not just similar.
      I was delighted to replace my MP3 player + Palm Pilot + Nokia with a single smartphone, that I used w/o a data plan for several years, because it did the job just as well while simplifying charging and carrying. I’m not eager to have it replace my PC too, because dock, keyboard, games, dual-screen, storage…
      Younger generations probably don’t have those habits, play Candy Crush instead of Civilization…
      To really displace my PC, a tablet would have to not only do new stuff, but also do the old stuff at least just as well. It doesn’t, and won’t until it handles a mouse, multiple screen, the usual peripherals…

      • Kizedek

        “To really displace my PC, a tablet would have to not only do new stuff, but also do the old stuff at least just as well. It doesn’t, and won’t until it handles a mouse, multiple screen, the usual peripherals…”

        I don’t think it’s so much a case of a one-to-one replacement of the hardware unit — as though someone is going to necessarily purchase a tablet in place of a PC in most cases, and completely ditch their PC in the process. But it’s pretty clear that a lot of use cases and use time is being replaced…

        Say, you keep a PC for six years, and (as you discussed in another comment above) you think about upgrading it during that time. Well, I think that two or three years into the 6 years, many many people are very likely to opt for a tablet instead of a new SSD, expansion card, etc. for their existing PC.

        It just opens up a whole lot of new user cases, and makes a number of traditional ones easier and more convenient. For a lot of specific use cases, a tablet does indeed end up replacing the PC.

        • Glaurung-Quena

          I have said this before, but it bears repeating: computing tasks gravitate to the minimum hardware that can accomplish them, limited only by legacy apps and backward compatibility concerns.

          “Getting on the internet” is the computing task that catapulted the PC from an office machine to something that every household that could afford it wanted to own. And now that computing task can be accomplished as well, or better, by a phone or tablet. The result is the continued steep declines in PC sales over the past few years. Not so much because people who *work* on their computers are deciding that they can accomplish all they use a PC for on a tablet, but because people who really only used their PC as an internet gateway are now able to do that on a much smaller, more compact, less buggy, convenient, and easier to use device.

          • klahanas

            “…limited only by legacy apps and backward compatibility concerns.”
            And even more severely limited by what “most people” do with them.

        • obarthelemy

          We need to complicate things:
          – there are uses that are tablet-only, or at least tablet-best: morning paper during breakfast, kids’ movie in the car…
          – other uses are tablet-OK: mail, Facebook,
          – finally, some uses are PC- only or PC-best: heavy Office work, app development…

          Task-wise and time-wise, tablets do replace PCs for a lot of stuff. As devices though, tablets sideline PC but don’t fully replace them, because some stuff is still much better in a PC.

          • jfutral

            I still contend those big/heavy office and other such apps _could_ move to a touch UI, but there is little to no incentive to do so. It would require a completely new UI paradigm/metaphor that I am not sure who has or hasn’t been able to come up with. I know, for all the talk some others have mentioned about CAD on Surface, it really isn’t there. To do CAD effectively, not just efficiently, you still need a mouse (or, as some have, dedicated input devices) and keyboard.

            How many companies other than MS, Google, or Apple actually have the capacity, never mind ability, to pour those resources into additional and new source code? Not little Vectorworks or other specialty or niche software. I imagine we are at least one to two generations away from anyone even being interested [eta: enough to pull it off.].

            Joe

  • DarwinPhish

    The big problem with iPads is that their value proposition does not scale well.

    A $4-500 iPad Air2 compares well against a similarly priced laptop. But as you are willing/able to spend more, you get much more improvement in laptops than you do in iPads. That is, spend an extra $500 on a laptop and you get improvements just about any user can appreciate. An extra $500 on an iPad gets you a bigger screen and a stylus, which probably is not of much value to many users.

    This is also the case with ease of use. Some tasks are very easy/intuitive with touch. However, more complex tasks are often not very intuitive and can be very hard to explain to a less tech-literate user. Cutting & pasting on an iPad is not all that intuitive and is often very frustrating. On a laptop, once are comfortable using the point and click interface, learning how to cut and past is easy.

    • Shameer Mulji

      “But as you are willing/able to spend more, you get much more improvement in laptops than you do in iPads. That is, spend an extra $500 on a laptop and you get improvements just about any user can appreciate”

      That’s the Catch-22 isn’t it

    • obarthelemy

      I’m curious about the myth that Touch is easier. It is more immediate, but it doesn’t, as you say about tablets in general, “scale”. The easy stuff is easier, but the complex stuff is more complex. Simply selecting text is a pain, then there’s the hidden gestures with no discoverability at all -I hear there are 3-finger swipes ? Is there a secret knock code too ?-, then you’ve got to hide with your hand the very thing you’re working on… and that’s usually combined with fun icons that are obvious only to their creators…
      And the limited device sizes severely constrain usefulness.

      • Kizedek

        I don’t tend to use 3-finger swipes on iOS devices, but on my Mac’s trackpad, I use it all the time; it’s very useful (moves between virtual desktops/full-screen apps).

        I haven’t used a mouse with a Mac for years, since the Apple trackpads are so good (external for iMac, built-in on MacBook). Gestures are completely discoverable as their is a demo in System Preferences.

        • obarthelemy

          Discoverable applies when you don’t need to RTFM only ;-p

  • This single insight is a key source of my concern for the tablet category.

    Why do you have concern over this? Is the tablet category something that must thrive and expand it’s market? Perhaps it had hit full market potential.

    Go read these series of articles by an author who has spent time using nothing but an iPad. Even he admits his productivity has suffered a hit and there are thing he just can NOT do.

    http://mattgemmell.com/category/ipad-only/

    • Glaurung-Quena

      “Even he admits his productivity has suffered a hit and there are thing he just can NOT do.”

      I went to the link and read all the articles. And I did not see anyplace where Gemmell said anything like that. To the contrary, he repeatedly says that he finds the ipad to be better than his mac for getting out of his way and letting him do what he needs to do without the fuss of having to nursemaid the complexity of a PC.

  • redrum

    I wanted to continue reading how you think iOS need to improve to fill the gap.

  • JeffKLassJr

    I would never want my iPad to become a MacBook … and vice versa. I use both of them (and also an iMac and iPhone) for very different apps with little or no overlap of functionality among them. iOS is absolutely perfect for my iPad and iPhone, and MacOS is absolutely perfect for my MacBook and iMac. The thought of attaching an external keyboard to my iPad seems totally ridiculous and unnecessary since I don’t use apps on the iPad that would require a lot to typing, and my MacBook Pro and iMac have perfectly fine keyboards for typing into numerous other kinds of apps that are more easily ‘driven’ using the keyboard and mouse. On my iPad I have thousands of photos that I can easily peruse using touch, and several hundred music albums, over a hundred books, and dozens of monthly magazines (through the Zinio app) … all of which are readily accessible either through voice or touch. The built-in iOS keyboards are perfect for ‘quickie’ typing into apps like Wikipedia, IMdb, and dictionaries and browsers. The only things I demand from my iPad are speed, lots of memory, and long battery life. The several hundred apps that I have on my iPad require mostly touch or voice access and that’s absolutely fine for me. FWIW, the only apps that I use on all of my Apple devices (except the AppleTV) are Facetime, Skype, and iMessage. Those that want and need laptop functionality should just get a fcuking laptop and stop complaining and trying to turn the iPad into something that it was never ‘conceived’ to be. Unfortunately that advice will never satisfy some of the people all of the time …

    • klahanas

      Well put, but phone aside (entirely different primary function) which is the device that does it all? The PC. The rest are buy moar, BUY MOAR!!!! (Credit to Brian Hall for the spelling)

      • Space Gorilla

        MOAR! is a meme that originated on 4chan. I’m fairly sure Brian does not get credit for the combination of ‘more’ and ‘roar’ or the meme.

        • klahanas

          Fair enough. I credited where I heard it from.

          • Space Gorilla

            It only takes a few seconds to check a source and ensure accuracy.

          • klahanas

            I was accurate as to where I heard it, so as to not take unnecessary credit. I only owe honesty. If you care more follow up yourself.

          • Space Gorilla

            Are you ever wrong about anything? Is it so hard to just say, “Thanks, didn’t mean to say Brian Hall coined the term”?

          • klahanas

            More importantly SG am I ever right about anything? I did not say Hall coined the term I gave credit to where I heard it. If it were you, I would say you.

            Just not important, do I need to go into the etymology of every word? Anyway, it’s not a real word.

    • obarthelemy

      So basically, you’ve got to have (buy, carry, charge, care for, accessorize,…) 2 different devices depending on the app you want to use. To me, it’s the exact equivalent on the Nokia+Palm+MP3 pre-smartphone situation I was so glad to get out of.
      These days I’m mostly travelling with a dual-boot tablet, taking along a keyboard and mouse when I think they’ll be needed.

      • JeffKLassJr

        Correcto. Mostly I just carry my iPhone when out and about. But when I have an appointment and will be in a waiting room some time, I also take along my iPad to read content (that is too extensive and complicated for the tiny text on my iPhone), or watch videos.

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