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Can a Tablet Replace a Notebook?

The short answer right now is, “not yet”. However before you conclude that this is an obvious statement, it is a conclusion that is loaded with contextual circumstances. To expect a tablet, which is based on a touch-based interface, to easily replace a mouse and a keyboard device directly, is to assume that tablet applications must mimic traditional computing nearly exactly (labeling the mouse/keyboard environment as “traditional” in this blog for simplicity).

Traditional mouse/keyboard/windows operating systems have had more than 30 years to develop and mature. Those old enough to remember will recall the days of MS-DOS, when its command line interface dominated the personal computer space and windows-based operating systems were ridiculed as “not real” computing, especially for business. A more recent example is the smartphone, which kicked off the widespread use of touch-based OS interfaces. At the time, the quick conclusion was that a hardware keyboard was necessary for business usage and a touch-only device was not a “real work device”. In the case of smartphones, though, the rapid evolution of apps and hardware created a class of devices that outclassed every phone type the preceded it, driving a complete transformation of the mobile phone market in a dramatic and historically short period of time.

Tablets have proven to be innovative and useful devices, especially for content consumption and general purpose internet computing (web browsing and email). A whole class of apps built from the ground up for large screen touch have enhanced the productivity capabilities of tablets as well. Where tablets have been less successful is in performing tasks that have matured around the traditional computing environment. Switching between numerous open windows within the same app, or navigating onscreen objects requiring mouse-type precision are operations geared towards mouse/keyboard/windows interfaces. Microsoft Office apps and especially Excel are prime examples of where tablet versions are a measurable compromise over their Windows and MacOS cousins.

Clearly, if tablets are to supplant traditional PCs for a majority of users, that day is still a ways off and will require significant evolution and transformation of traditional productivity apps to a touch-only interface. Tablets replacing PCs is a much harder challenge than smartphones replacing traditional mobile phones as PCs continue to maintain a viable use case and a better solution than tablets in many cases for several day-to-day work tasks, especially for those dependent on Office.

From a storage perspective, a potential long term shift towards tablets will accelerate the growth of NAND flash and eventually other non-volatile storage technologies. Tablets as largely hand held or close proximity devices accentuate the need for even lighter weight and longer battery life compared to traditional PCs. Any major transition to tablets will drive a faster erosion of HDDs for mobile applications.

Currently, tablets for some persons are an enhancement over traditional computing and have become an important tool for work, complementing but not replacing a PC. Will it ever replace a notebook PC for all use cases across a broad majority of users? For a category that is only five years old, it is too early to call definitively, but numerous corporate partnerships, hardware improvements, and most importantly, software evolution, are underway that will push the potential of tablets forward. Replacement technologies require the development of innovative and more efficient methods to get personal and work tasks done for a majority use cases. These revolutions usually occur by surprise, but become obvious in hindsight. To view tablets as PC replacements today garners a great deal of deserved skepticism; however, resolution of the PC versus tablet debate will invariably require more time to see if innovations move the tablet category forward, or end up hitting the proverbial dead end. Given the well-entrenched nature of PCs today, notebook vendors will continue to produce and sell traditional compute devices to serve those users well into the future, even if tablets evolve to become an alternative primary computing device for many. For now, tablet makers (most who are also PC OEMs) will continue down the split path that has emerged over the past couple of years, with some serving the ultra low cost, content consuming market, and others at the high end attempting to evolve tablets into general purpose computing devices.

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