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What's the Future for Laptops?

I spent part of last week in New Orleans at CTIA, the big wireless telecom show. While I do attend CTIA when I can, this year's location was the real draw for me. For the past 15 years, I have tried to take at least two "eating vacations" each year. Travelling throughout my career, I have been stuck in all types of places around the world and checking out the local food scene has become kind of a hobby. So, I usually work for two or three days and, if I like the food prospects, I extend my stay for a few days just to eat.

I must admit that I am really partial to New Orleans and look for reasons to go back there whenever I can. That's why, when I got word that this year's CTIA was in New Orleans, I immediately booked my flights and started dreaming of crawfish, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and po' boys. Interestingly, this show is no longer a major venue for new phone introductions - those are now done at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona each February. So, CTIA has become more focused on things like infrastructure, carrier issues, and trends. I did get to see some new phones that will be launched later in the year under NDA, but I can't talk about them just yet.

One of the more interesting discussions at the show revolved around the role of tablets and their future. The carriers see them as new ways to add revenue by selling data plans since people who have tablets tend to want them to be connected all of the time. Although 85 percent of tablets sold today do not include a 3G or 4 G radio inside, the carriers will be making a bigger push to include them in new releases. Carriers tell me their goal is to get to at least 40 percent penetration by 2015. By then, they hope to get their data pricing down into more consumer friendly ranges and with that, demand for wireless data services in tablets should increase.

Many conversations also addressed the future of tablets in general and how they could impact the laptop landscape. Quite a few of the folks I spoke with have started to use Bluetooth keyboards with their tablets and they say that using a tablet/keyboard combo really changes their thinking about laptops. A lot of them only take their tablet/keyboard with them on short trips, leaving the laptop home. I have heard this case repeated a lot lately by tablet users. Many find themselves spending more time with the tablet since they can do as much as 80 percent of their work on it and thus they are relying less and less on the laptop.

Given these folks' smartphone and tablet focus, I asked some execs whether they thought Motorola's idea of creating a lapdock connection to the smartphone with a keyboard/screen accessory had legs. Not surprisingly, they seemed to think that such a product would have only limited success given the strong acceptance of tablets and the expected push by Intel and partners for Ultrabooks.

But these same execs, albeit telecom guys, pointed out that a connected tablet could eventually replace the laptop for most people. While this is a rather bold prediction on their part, I think they could be right. Now, I don't think the laptop will ever go away completely, but I do think that more and more users, especially consumers, will realize that the tablet can get most of the job done. They may find ways to scale back the use of their laptops or do away with them altogether.

The key to this thinking is that, in the home, there may come a day when what consumers really want is a powerful all-in-one system that sits in the den or on a kitchen counter and serves as their information system and media center/server. The whole family can use it for big tasks, such as editing and organizing their personal photos, videos, and music collections. They could also use it for any other heavy lifting tasks like handling home finances, managing personal data, and writing. In this scenario, the all-in-one is the family's communal system, but at the personal level, the family would share a couple of highly portable tablets as needed.

I have seen some preliminary research and there seems to be some real interest in this notion, especially in homes. As you may know, desktops sales have been declining for the past four years, but last year they stabilized. We are starting to see a small uptick in all-in-ones, especially since their prices have come down a lot over the last 18 months. To be fair, consumers could also buy a large and powerful laptop instead of an all-in-one, but if they really like touch devices, they might opt for all-in one touch systems such as HP's TouchSmart desktop PC.

If this speculative trend becomes a reality, the ramifications for the laptop vendors could be significant because they sell the majority of their laptops to consumers. We won't see business or enterprise users dumping their laptops any time soon, but if consumers use an all-in-one as a communal home PC, supplemented by a couple of tablets, laptops could fall by the wayside.

Although I don't see this scenario playing out quickly, there is a real possibility that it could become a trend. And if so, today's laptop vendors better get their tablet strategies in place soon. If they don't, they will potentially lose any momentum they may have with their laptops today as consumer make tablets their primary mobile PCs.

Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved. Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc.