Tablets' ascendancy: due in no small part to PCs' stagnancy

-February 12, 2013

Innumerable cyber-ink has been spilled in recent years, particularly since the unveiling of the first-generation iPad in the spring of 2010, regarding the supposedly looming "post-PC" era. The combination of increasingly powerful smartphones and larger-screen tablet devices, so says the theory, will steadily eat into the laptop and (particularly) desktop PC installed base, sooner or later effectively leading to the obsolescence of legacy computer form factors...with the ironic exception of "cloud"-located servers feeding (and being fed with) data to (and from) those ascendant mobile computing and communications devices.

Topical data certainly seems to support the theory. A recent analyst report, for example, concludes that when tablets are included in the definition of the term "personal computer," they accounted for one in three personal computer shipments in the fourth quarter of last year. The outcome, this and other analysts agree, is the result both of dramatic tablet shipment increases and the fact that "shipments of traditional PCs contracted last year for the first time since 2001." And by translating the data in a somewhat different way while again combining tablet and conventional PCs under the same "personal computer" umbrella, Apple became the world's largest computer supplier, with more than 20% of the overall market...fueled by the shipments of 23 million iPad and iPad mini tablets, along with 4 million Macs.

What's fueling this tablet ascendance? Industry pundits rightly point to the advantages inherent to the upstart, deriving from its processor and operating system-and-application foundations...a thin and lightweight, high-resolution screen-dominated form factor, with day-long battery life and good-enough responsiveness. Intel's Ultrabook campaign was, in fact, arguably developed precisely to attack the tablet form factor's only tangible Achilles' heels, software incompatibility and the lack of a physical keyboard, by striving to deliver tablet-like performance and power consumption while simultaneously supporting tactile input and the full Windows application ecosystem.

But these factors, although valid, don't completely comprehend the situation in my mind. Another notable factor, in my opinion, derives from the admittedly elementary observation that people like to buy things. They buy things when they're happy. They buy things when they're sad (the so-called "retail therapy" phenomenon). Day in, day out, year after year, they buy things. This behavior is, for better and worse, the barometer of much of the world's economic health, as the past few years' worth of recession (or, depending on where you are and what your overall outlook is, depression) have made abundantly clear. And whereas consumers historically might have been compelled to repeatedly buy more and upgrade to better computers, the computer market has effectively hit a plateau, thereby redirecting consumers' acquisition attention elsewhere.

A recent personal case study clearly exemplifies, I think, this situation. My girlfriend recently decided to purchase a 15" laptop computer. I steered her towards Apple's MacBook Pro, in part because it's becoming increasingly difficult to buy a new Microsoft-based PC that runs an O/S other than latest-generation Windows 8. Plus, I've long been personally pleased with the build quality of Apple's hardware, which also robustly runs Redmond's software. And admittedly, I have a vested interest in slowly-but-surely transitioning her over to Cupertino's software, following in the footsteps of my own to-Mac OS X migration of recent years.

I could have recommended that she buy a brand new MacBook Pro, but that would have cost her $1,800 or more...$2,200 and beyond for a "Retina" display-equipped model. Or we could have "settled" for a year-plus-old factory refurb, at a few hundred dollars' savings. Instead, I advocated (and she accepted) the suggestion of a near-three-year old factory refurb, sold by a reputable third party, for $1,299.

When brand new, this MC373LL/A system was at the top end of the 15" MacBook Pro product line range, selling for $2,199. It actually contains a more advanced Intel CPU architecture (not to mention a faster-clocked CPU with HyperThreading support and a large integrated cache allocation) than the one in my similar-vintage 13" MacBook Pro, with which I'm still perfectly content (especially after I swapped out its HDD for a much-faster-read-access SSD...a similar surgical procedure to what I've got planned for my girlfriend's "new" system). Her computer's larger 15" form factor allows for dual graphics subsystems: a lower performance but lower power consumption GPU integrated alongside the processor, dynamically switched by the O/S on an as-needed basis to a beefier discrete graphics processor.

Because the MacBook Pro she bought is an official Apple refurb, it's still eligible for AppleCare extended warranty coverage in spite of its age. It arrived the other day, cosmetically looks brand new, and functions like new, too. And I'm highly confident that she'll be completely content with it, particularly considering the price tag...and particularly after the experience of the brand new "Retina" display-equipped MacBook Pro that she saw the other day in the Apple Store (which I mistakenly took her in) fades from her memory.

Next time, I'll share some more case studies supporting my contention that the computer market has flat-lined, along with suggestions on how it might be able to resurrect itself. Until then, as always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments section.

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