Tablets may eclipse laptops in 2014, but there's no post-PC future on the horizon

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After Apple launched the iPad in 2010, it didn’t take critics long to start asking if this new breed of one-panel touch tablets would kill the PC market as people opted for slates over clamshells. Now, more than three years, four iPads, and a gazillion Android tablets later, the answer to that question is finally taking shape.

Worldwide tablet shipments are expected to overtake desktop PCs in 2013 and laptops will suffer the same fate one year later, according to market research firm IDC. (IDC and PCWorld are both owned by International Data Group). That would seem to be a pretty definitive case that PCs are about to be replaced by tablets—but on closer inspection that’s not what IDC's numbers are truly saying.

Tablets rising

There’s little question the market for tablets is exploding. In 2012, IDC said global tablet shipments grew by 78.4 percent compared to the year previous. Meanwhile the market share of desktop and portable PCs (laptops, Ultrabooks, etc.) dropped by 4.1 and 3.4 percent, respectively. And that's just the start of the bleeding: IDC predicts the desktop market will drop another 4.3 percent in 2013, while laptops are expected to stay relatively flat at a growth rate of just 0.9 percent.

But percentages can be deceiving and they tell only half the tale of IDC’s predictions. Peering ahead to the future, IDC’s numbers suggest that while the overall market share for PCs will decline, shipments will still increase, if only by a hair. In other words, the demand for PCs isn't dying down—it’s just that the thirst for mobile devices is exploding.

IDC's estimates for connected device sales.

By 2017, PCs will account for 17 percent of the smart connected device market—PCs, tablets, and smartphones—worldwide, but manufacturers are still expected to ship more than 380 million computers that year, according to IDC. PC shipments in 2012, by comparison, were just over 350 million, giving a net shipment increase of about 30 million comparing year-to-year. That’s anemic growth to be sure, but it also means PC shipments will remain relatively steady and are only shrinking in comparison to everything else.

While PC growth stagnates, tablet shipments will nearly triple between 2012 and 2017 going from 128.3 million to 352.3 million devices worldwide. By 2017, IDC predicts that tablet and PC shipments should be almost equally ubiquitous across the globe.

To infinity and beyond

But what happens after 2017? Will PCs continue on the same trajectory, maintaining the same market size, while becoming a smaller and smaller part of a larger connected device universe? Chances are good that the demand for PCs will begin shrinking in a more significant way, but it’s also not clear what will happen to tablets beyond the next four years.

Beyond that, will the tablets of 2018 have the same basic capabilities as modern-day Android and iOS slates, or will they be more PC-like? Will 10-inch tablets merge with Ultrabooks, as some industry watchers predict? Or perhaps, as a recent Amazon patent suggests, cloud computing will turn the devices on your desk and in your pocket to nothing more than a dumb display that relies on remote servers for both processing and battery power.

It’s impossible to know what to expect on the distant horizon, but in the near future, the world will continue breathing life into PCs even while tablets sales surge. Are we living in a post-PC era? Ha.

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