The tablet vs. the PC remains one of the central debates of our time. As an analyst for both the PC industry and the tablet industry I have to study the market for both devices. Benedict Evans wrote a piece yesterday that is worth reading. In summarizing a key thought of his he points out that “its all just glass… The question is what do you want to do with it.
In a similar vein Joanna Stern wrote this provoking article on the subject of tablets and productivity. She puts a number of tablets to the test to see if they can suffice as a PC replacement. The tests she performed are valid and whether a tablet can be replaced by a notebook is a topic that needs addressing. However, it is the wrong question. The correct question is what Benedict asked: what do you want to do with it.
What DO you want to do with it?
My entire thesis about the market for PCs, tablets, and even smartphones is that the markets are mature enough for consumers to know they want one, two, or all three of these devices. But not mature enough that the same consumers, generally speaking, are self aware enough to why, or what specific preferences they have with each device. Prior to the iPad, the only device we had for a “real work” device was a PC. Consumers were using a PC to do things like email, browse the web, write a report, do a school paper, make a movie, edit some photos, etc., on that device because it was the only device capable of doing so. This entire proposition has now been challenged. Not only are tablets, and even smartphones, capable of doing many of the tasks that most consumers users their PCs for, but that they are also better than the PC for many of them.
I firmly believe my iPad is a better web browsing tool than my PC. I believe it is a better entertainment device for games, watching movies, and TV shows. I personally believe it is a better art studio. With all the use cases we can list for our smart devices, the central issue keeps coming back to what do you want to do with it.
Back in the Netbooks thankfully short lived heyday, I was tasked with doing some research to understand why the Netbook was taking off in key PC markets like the US and Europe. We spent a bit of time talking to consumers all over the world to get a handle on what the primary tasks they did with their PC the most of the time. What I discovered was enlightening. The vast majority of consumers we spoke to (greater than 90%) rarely used more than a handful of applications. Mostly they just browsed the web, used an email client, played some casual games (like Solitaire), and every now and then Word or Excel. My key takeaway was that the vast majority of time consumers spent using their PCs they were doing very simple things. This research is where my conclusion that the PC over-serves most consumers is based.
Benedict make a point in his post that I think is exactly the way we need to understand the market for PCs. He points out that one way to look at the market is to draw a clear line between commercial and consumer markets. I would include a university student in commercial for the time being. There are very real and very clear reasons why a commercial customer needs a PC. Perhaps this person needs a desktop, because they work primarily from their desk. Or perhaps they are primarily a mobile worker and work heavily out and about and so the notebook is the right form factor. While I think there are cases when a tablet can suffice for a mobile worker, I recognize there is still a role for the portable desktop (notebook) in the market.
The consumer market is a very different beast. While its true many enterprise workers are also consumers, many do not need to bring their work(PC) home with them. I’m convinced the PC is a truck analogy rings exactly true. A truck is necessary for some people on a daily basis for their line of work. For others, it is only necessary every now and then like when they move, or have to take things to the dump, for example. The only question is if the car is the tablet or the smartphone.