Tablets threaten laptops, but there's more to this picture

Why tablets are not a threat to notebooks

Look closely at the last sentence. I didn’t say tablets will beat notebooks. I said cheap tablets will beat netbooks. That is really the crux of the data.

Overall, the data lumps cheap, economy netbooks in with real notebooks that provide the power of a full desktop PC on the go. It also mashes together bargain basement tablets with larger, more capable tablets that cost more.

There is a significant distinction between a netbook and a notebook.

There is some cannibalization of laptop sales. The simple reality is that many of the things people need to do can be done just as well or better from a tablet. And, even if we’re talking about the 9 and 10 inch tablets that average in the $500 and $600 range, it’s a more versatile, less expensive alternative to $1,000-plus notebooks.

That said, a tablet can’t do everything a “real” computer can do. Businesses rely on tools and applications built for Windows—software that can only be run on most tablets through some sort of remote desktop solution that links back to a “real” PC. Notebooks have more internal storage, and more ports like USB, SD memory, and HDMI that are lacking on some tablets, and they’re generally easier to upgrade or repair.

As Paul Thurrott recently pointed out, netbooks are the real threat to notebooks. The ridiculously low pricing for underpowered, plastic, disposable junk has created a false expectation and sense of entitlement in the market. Businesses and consumers balk at spending $1000 or $2000 on capable, quality notebook PCs.

When push comes to shove, cheap tablets are a threat to cheap netbooks, and tablets in general may chip away at overall notebook sales, but businesses still need powerful, capable laptops. It would be interesting to see a drill down that separates small tablets from large ones, and netbooks from notebooks to get a more accurate picture of how tablets are impacting real notebooks.

Why the argument is pointless

A tablet is a PC, so it’s silly to talk about how it’s going to kill the PC. It’s like suggesting that dolphins are going to eliminate the whale population. Dolphins are technically whales, so it’s not possible.

Innovative new hardware blurs the line between "tablet" and "PC".

Although Microsoft has been taking some heat for the allegedly slow launch of Windows 8, Microsoft actually seems to understand the tablet-PC relationship as well or better than anyone.

Windows 8 is a bridge OS. It attempts to straddle the line between the traditional Windows-based PC we’re used to, and the next-generation, touch-based, mobile-oriented devices we’re moving toward. Windows 8 itself may struggle for a wide variety of reasons, but ultimately it’s a step in the right direction, and indicates that Microsoft has a vision for the future.

Intel announced this week at CES 2013 that touchscreen displays will be a core requirement of the next generation of ultrabooks. Hardware vendors have inundated the market with crossover hybrid hardware like the Dell XPS 12 Convertible or the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga that attempt to be both a PC and a notebook. Microsoft’s Surface is a tablet that looks and acts like an ultrabook with the addition of one of the keyboard covers.

The line is blurred because we’re talking about an evolution of the PC market, not the execution of it. The NPD tablets vs. notebooks data projects through 2017, but I predict by 2015 we’ll stop considering them as separate markets.

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