Could 7in tablets help to shift notebooks?

In an article last week, I wrote about the impact of tablets on laptop sales. There is, however, a rather interesting twist on this trend that could actually result in a reversal.

It's becoming clear to some of us researchers that most of the potential PC and laptop buyers are torn between tablets and laptops when it comes to buying a device to fit into their business or personal lifestyles. The early adopters of the iPad quickly discovered that while Steve Jobs originally positioned the device as a media consumption slate, it could also cross over to serve as a productivity tool.

For the PC industry, this is both good and bad news. The iPad finally made the tablet a successful form factor and put it on the radar of consumers and business users alike. Apple has sold close to 100 million and most researchers predict that by 2014, the industry will be selling at least 200 million tablets annually.

This is where the bad news comes in: While the industry is still selling at least 300 million laptops and desktops a year, that growth has stalled; IDC reports that PC sales for 2012 will grow by only one per cent. Although laptops are getting cheaper, thinner, lighter, and faster, consumers are deferring upgrades as they try to identify their ideal balance of tablet and laptop use in their lives – and determine whether the latter is even necessary. External keyboards and hybrid devices have only muddied the waters.

Many consumers extol the virtues of a tablet and keyboard combo because it lets them do up to 80 per cent of what a laptop does. These users say that they only turn to their laptops when they must do more extensive computing tasks like editing videos, managing large music collections, writing long documents, or working on big spreadsheets. Laptop sales have thus slowed dramatically because many are just extending the life of their current machines since they use them mainly to supplement tablet use.

But in our research, we are noticing an interesting trend involving iPad and larger tablet use. While iPads in business settings are primarily for productivity, when their owners are off the clock, they are used mostly for media consumption.

Smaller tablets

The introduction of smaller 7in tablets like Google's Nexus 7, Amazon's 7in Kindle Fire HD, and a possible iPad mini could finally resolve the dilemma for potential tablet buyers starting this autumn. These smaller tablets are much cheaper than the larger models and will be more attractive to a broader audience.

If tablets are used 80 per cent of the time for media consumption and web browsing, and only 20 per cent of the time for productivity, then perhaps these smaller, 7in tablets that are cheaper and lighter can do most of the job. In buying a 7in tablet, though, the owner's intention is extremely clear: To consume media, browse the web, and use mobile apps. People will discover that a 7in tablet cannot cross over as a productivity device the same way a larger tablet can today. Then, laptops become the device that they use for the majority of their productivity the other 20 per cent of the time.

If this plays out as I suspect, the demand for laptops should rally in the near future, especially for ultrathins.

Essentially, smartphones will be used for communicating, data snacking, and handheld gaming; 7in tablets will be used for consuming mobile media; and laptops will act as the primary tool for productivity and media management.

Of course, laptop growth depends on these thinner and lighter laptops coming down in price (although you can already pick up an ultrabook pretty cheaply, see these Samsung and Dell offerings for example). Even traditional laptops selling in the sub-£500 budget range should see a major uptick in demand as users settle on the 7in tablet for their most portable computing needs.

IDC predicts that PC and laptop sales will rebound to as much as seven per cent from 2013 through 2015. Even so, I would not be surprised if we get back to at least ten per cent growth in the PC business by 2014. And while tablets were at the heart of the slowdown in laptop sales this year, as more folks adopt smaller tablets for their media consumption needs, interest in new laptops should soon increase as users seek to round out their computing approach.