Tablets Want To Kill Your Laptop

Laptops are doomed. In the next five years, tablets will displace notebook-style computers to become the dominant personal computing platform. And the transition from laptop to tablet has already begun.

That’s the key finding of a new Forrester Research report that predicts the end of the laptop’s 15-year reign. The trend is already well under way among people born between 1980 and 2000, known to demographers as the millennial generation. In the U.S., 30% of tablet owners in this age group have purchased a tablet in place of a PC, compared to 20% of baby boomers. 

"For this growing body of [millennial] users, PCs will seem like clunky trucks rather than sleek cars, dampening their long-term propensity to buy conventional PCs," says the 19-page report authored by Forrester analyst Frank Gillett.

But the tablet won’t replace the laptop all by itself, Forrester says. File-sharing services such as Box, DropBox, SugarSync and Apple’s iCloud will be critical enabling technologies, as well as a new type of stationary display the analyst calls a frame, due to become commonplace by 2015. 

Sales projections back up Forrester’s forecast. Tablets are expected to outsell laptops in 2016 as tablet shipments quintuple from 81.6 million in 2011 to 424.9 million by 2017, according to research firm DisplaySearch. Tablet sales will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 46% during the same period, Forrester predicts, reaching 375 million in 2016. A third of those sales will be directly to businesses, as tablets become standard tools for executives, sales staff and other information workers.

China and other emerging markets will drive the fastest tablet growth because they aren’t already saturated with laptops and smartphones, according to Forrester. Emerging markets will account for 40% of tablets sold by 2016.

For users, the rise of the tablet will bring one outstanding benefit: Convenience. At 1.75 pounds or lighter, tablets are half the weight of the sleekest laptops. They turn on instantly, are easier to use and have a long battery life. In time, they’ll acquire more processing muscle and move beyond today’s most common uses: reading email and documents, browsing the Web and watching video. Eventually they’ll come to rival laptops as workhorses. Apple is already pushing in that direction by making iWork available on the iPad. Microsoft is expected to make the Office suite available for tablets next year.

One stumbling block in the tablet’s path to dominance is screen size. At 7 to 14 inches diagonal, tablet screens are too small to handle the gamut of computing chores comfortably. That's where frames come in, according to Forrester.

Frames will be large, stationary displays that a person can use to wirelessly show video, documents and any other tablet-based content. They’ll be laden with sensors, so people can interact with them through touch, voice and gestures (via motion sensors similar to those in Microsoft's Kinect). Forrester envisions frames as fixtures in homes, offices, hotel rooms, coffee shops and conferences. Forrester analysts expect them to reach the mass market in 2015, when they will spark an acceleration in the displacement of laptops. 

The presumed ubiquity of frames might be the report’s most iffy prediction. But the technology’s forebears are already on the market, Forrester points out, including the Apple Thunderbolt, Samsung Central Station and Sony Power Media Dock. Apple AirPlay wireless technology enables the iPad and iPhone to send video and audio to TVs or external speakers via Apple TV, and Intel Wireless Display technology moves content from PC to TV.

More than the iPad

Note that tablet dominance doesn’t mean iPad dominance. Apple's market share will shrink from its current 68%, dropping below 50% by 2017, according to the NPD Group. Nevertheless, Forrester predicts that Apple will continue to lead in the enterprise and among premium buyers worldwide. Tablets based on Google's Android platform will capture the low end. Microsoft Windows 8 tablets, expected to reach stores by the end of the year, will become a strong competitor in 2014.

While laptops will no longer be the center of the personal computing universe, they won't disappear for a long time. The transition to tablets will take years, and meanwhile laptops will be used for graphic- and processing-intensive tasks such as graphic design, engineering and complex calculation. But as tablets become better-suited to a wide range of tasks, and the support technologies become more widespread, most people will find them simpler and more convenient. Then, Forrester says, even die-hard laptop lovers will ditch their notebooks and jump on the tablet juggernaut.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.