Understanding The Windows Tablet Market (Part 1)

I often find myself wandering through computer stores or the more relatively available office supply stores which in my area double as PC showplaces. It has been interesting to see how these stores have integrated tablets and e-readers unto the store floors because they illustrate their growth as a form factor.

Office supply stores in particular are interesting cases because their customer base are small to medium businesses. With the release of Windows 8 one of the things I’ve looked forward to was seeing tablet PCs of various forms on show tables; and while some have reached shelves many haven’t and I’m left asking myself where are all the tablets?

When Windows 8 was first shown, simultaneously at both the D Conference and Computex, it was clear that the form factor in mind was a tablet. Actually we knew tablets were a targeted form factor from leaked slides which came out a year before Windows 8 was shown.

While the new OS can and does work on laptops and desktops its clear it belongs on tablet PCs.

And yet when you walk into a store you see hardly any Windows tablets at all.

With the release of the Surface Pro, Microsoft’s branded device, The market now has six or seven Windows tablet PCs in the market.

Now for the purpose of this post I am calling any Windows based tablet a tablet PC and in this term I encompassed pure tablets, tablet convertibles, and tablet hybrids. It helps simplify the category for me.

Saying that tablets are eating away at PC sales or that the PC market is dying tends to oversimplify what is happening. A more nuanced view is that an expanding consumer market is pushing what we think of as traditional computing into a niche market; and that tablets and thin/light laptops are becoming the mass computing form factor.

There are also numerous other factors in the decline of PC sales beyond tablets. A rough economy has encouraged people to retain older devices longer; as have the devices durability;as has Microsoft’s support for older operating systems. Another factor is the fact that the PC market has relied on a number of assumed markets and notions that have shifted to more mobile devices or slowed adoption.

The netbook is a prime example. I agree with writers like Paul Thurrott that say a big part of PC growth was in selling these cheap, small laptops. I also agree that this growth was unsustainable and unhealthy for the market.; empty-calorie growth if you will. Another notion was that international growth would sustain the PC market. While true many developing nations and other countries are a growth area faster growth is seen in mobile. In fact many countries use a mobile phone in lieu of a PC. Lastly business adoption has slowed with the economy, with many companies reducing cost by reducing IT.

Now tablets are a growing facet of technology and they are having an effect on PC sales, but its important to understand what part and how. My belief, and it is a belief or a theory as I’m not a trained analyst, economist, or etc, is that the PC market has been slowly evolving (devolving depending on preference) away from the traditional hobbyist/consumer to the mass consumer. This movement has had a huge effect on both form factor and software.

If you think about the first computer buyers they were made up of the same type as the ones writing software and making hardware. These first users built there own boxes and had intimate knowledge of the software. Now the next influx of users (and the one many of us belong to) would be second gen computer users and early Information workers. These users have varying degrees of knowledge about PCs and came along during the Mac/PC ascendance. These are the first to use PCs, Macs, Amiga, and others in the workplace or school. Now the third wave are what many a futurists/BS artist would call natives; computer users that came after the proliferation of PCs in the home and work. These are people who would have little if any idea what a life without a computer or internet is like. These can include grandparents or anyone who knows how to use a computer, but not necessarily to code or the insides. This and the second wave have had the greatest impact on the market. These were the waves that helped consolidate the PC market, push the web, and move the PC from the desktop to the notebook.

As computers moved to be more integral to everyday life and its audience has grown; schisms and niches have emerged. The big reason computing is dummying down as some say is because people want them to just work. Where commoditization, hacking, and moding are at the heart of computing for some; they hinder many from mastering the computer. It’s not an issue of smarts but workflow.

(I’m sorry I went a little long there)

Laptops and netbooks had basically replaced the desktop as the computing platform for many. It was mobile and in time gave people all the functionality found in a beige box. As prices dropped, laptops became easy buys; netbooks more so. This is where tablets have eaten into PC sales. Tablets replace that replacement laptop people buy around the holidays or back to school. Tablets snuck in as companion devices; something that allows limited function and prolongs the use of the laptop you left at home. And in many ways that is where the growth is coming from.

Tablets are this fun, easy to grasp devices that let you do light computer tasks; an add on.

The thing about this is, tablets are slowly morphing into the next big device category. Going back to that Office supply store if you look, a significant amount of space is dedicated to tablet accessories. The majority of it is for the iPad and a significant amount of them are aimed at making the device more like a mini computer. There are cases with keyboards, styli, keyboard docks, stands, and even mice. All that so a 9.7 inch touch screen can be morphed into a laptop.

If you want more evidence go search for the 2012 Holiday sales or look up recent tablet estimates. For me it was walking into a Best Buy during the Holiday rush and watching people lining up to purchase tablets and give scant once over of laptops. People were buying tablets not even knowing what they’d do with them (but wanting them anyway).

Last was a true story.

I think that what we see now is a possible shift toward touch computing becoming something serious in the definite future; and traditional computing becoming both a smaller market and optional as an input in the mass market.

I think that is what Microsoft saw with the early sales of the iPad and why Microsoft treats touch with a seriousness not seen in other platforms. I also think PC OEMs are dragging their feet for a plethora of reasons.

(Which I will outline in Part Two) 


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