Tablet Makers Aren’t Reaching for the Brass Ring

The PC is not yet in danger of becoming extinct, but its position as the primary computing device in most people’s lives could soon be threatened by the tablet.

Several analyst firms have recalculated their 2011 PC sales projections after noticing a trend in which more consumers are passing on PC purchases in favor of tablets. Gartner, for instance, now expects worldwide PC shipments to grow 10.5 percent this year, which is a downward revision from its earlier estimate of a 14.6 percent annual growth rate.

Gartner expects the biggest decline to come in sales of consumer laptops, which reflects the growing consumer preference for tablets. At the beginning of the year, Gartner expected laptops sales to grow a robust 25.1 percent. It now projects that rate to be 14.6 percent.

This trend gave Apple CEO Steve Jobs the confidence to declare that we are now in the “post PC era” as he was unveiling the iPad 2 last month.

While tablets — and the iPad in particular — are proving to be a big hit with consumers, I don’t think we can officially kick off the post-PC era until we actually see more tablets than laptops or desktops in the workplace. I also believe that the day when tablets overtake PCs for supremacy in the workplace is closer than many people think.

How Business Perceives Tablets

In reviewing their 2011 PC market projections, analysts noted that the corporate sector is the one area in which PC sales are not declining, and they expect that trend to hold for several more years. I disagree.

At the moment, PCs are holding their own in the corporate world because that’s what businesses are accustomed to buying. It takes time to shift a company’s purchasing apparatus — and Apple introduced the first commercially viable tablet barely more than a year ago. Any company locked into a purchasing agreement with another vendor hasn’t really had the option of buying tablets.

Even with nearly a dozen vendors set to release new tablets this year, some businesses may resist buying them due to the perception that these devices are built to amuse and entertain users rather than make them more productive.

That assumption will change rather quickly as more people discover that tablets can handle word processing, presentation and spreadsheet applications as well as most laptops, and certainly better than any smartphone.

Early adopters have been taking their iPads to work with them from day one, and they haven’t been shy about showing their coworkers exactly what these devices can do both in and out of the workplace. I’ve attended several business meetings recently in which people I would never have taken for technophiles have shown up toting iPads.

Tablet Pioneers

It won’t be long before these tablet pioneers start insisting that their employers support these devices. In fact, Forrester Research recently published a report highlighting the phenomenon of workers pushing companies to start supporting more mobile devices — both tablets and smartphones.

The most vocal of these workers — identified as “mobile wannabes” or mobile mavericks” — currently make up 22 percent of all corporate workers, and their ranks will grow to 42 percent of all corporate employees by 2015, Forrester said.

That represents a real opportunity for all tablet suppliers. Curiously, however, few tablet suppliers are tailoring their products for the corporate market. Instead, they are trying to take on Apple and its iPad in the consumer space.

That strategy might make sense on the surface, given that previous attempts by vendors to sell tablet-like devices to enterprises failed miserably, which means Apple currently offers the only model for succeeding with a tablet.

Considering most of the new tablets operate on Google’s Android operating system, the manufacturers might be expecting a repeat of the scenario that transpired in the smartphone space — where Apple’s iPhone captured a commanding lead that Android-based devices were subsequently able to erode.

A Professional-Grade Tablet

It’s inevitable that at least one of the new tablets will catch on with consumers. Still, I would argue that chances of a new tablet succeeding would be higher if its manufacturer ignored consumers, at least in the short term, and catered to business users instead.

RIM, which ushered in the smartphone era by bringing the BlackBerry to the corporate world, is one of two — HP is the other — that claims to be doing that. RIM calls its PlayBook, which is set to debut April 19, “the world’s first professional-grade tablet” because it’s optimized to work on corporate servers.

That’s a start, but to truly capture the hearts and minds of corporate users, a tablet will have to show that it can soundly beat the iPad at things like handling email, managing documents and enabling video conferencing. It also should be supported by a business version of the App Store or Andriod Market, with a set of business applications designed specifically for that platform.

While most of the new tablets are running the Android operating system, I haven’t heard about any third-party business applications being created for those devices. Meanwhile, there are a handful of business software developers working on iPad apps. One of those is Siemens PLM Software, which recently released an application that allows users to view detailed product drawings and models on the iPad.

Unless the other manufacturers start courting business application developers, the iPad may end up dominating both the consumer and business computing spaces.

E-Commerce Times columnist Sidney Hill has been writing about business and technology trends for more than two decades. In addition to his work as a freelance journalist, he operates an independent marketing communications consulting firm. You can connect with Hill through his website.

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