Replacing the PC

When I first saw the iPad, I knew it was going to replace the personal computer for the vast majority of people. I was wrong. Yes, the iPad is easier, faster, and cheaper at doing pretty much everything a normal person wants to do on a computer. Yes, PCs are definitely going to die. And yes, by looking at most sales numbers, it appears that the transition has already started. But if you pick apart the data, a very different picture begins to emerge: The iPad is a false start; it’s a temporary sidestep on the way to a future in which everyone’s computer is simply their mobile phone.

The first piece of statistical evidence that caught my attention was this weird fact from a Pew Research study of tablet user demographics: the people who use tablets tend to be older.

16% 1 Very young people with tablets (15-20)
18% 1 Young people with tablets (20-29)
25% 2 Older people with tablets (30-55)

This is very odd. Why would teens and young adults, who are almost without exception the earliest adopters of new technological trends, use tablets less often than older adults, who are least likely to be early adopters? Compared to most new technologies, the tablet is being adopted backwards!

New habits

I think the reason for this reversal is that older adults, who grew up with traditional computers, have developed habits that a tablet naturally extends, like browsing the internet or sending emails on the couch while watching television. These adults buy tablets as secondary computers to replace laptops for the same kinds of tasks in similar contexts. For older people, the tablet is an evolution of the laptop, just like the laptop was an evolution of the desktop.

Younger people, on the contrary, simply do their computing entirely on their mobile phones. That’s what they’ve grown up using. Older adults use laptops and tablets to access the internet. Teens and young adults use their phones.

55% 1 Teens who are “cell-mostly” internet users (14-22)
15% 2 Adults who are “cell-mostly” internet users (23-55)

More than 55% of teens and early young adults report being “cell-mostly” internet users–meaning they primarily use the internet on their phone instead of a computer or tablet–compared to only 15% of older adults. Young people are growing up on the mobile phone as their primary computing device, which has fundamentally changed the way they use and think about the internet. Tablets are simply unnecessary for them, because the mobile phone doesn’t offer a degraded internet experience, like it does for adults: it is the internet experience.

I suspect this behavior will continue as these young people grow up, and that the trend will become even more striking.

Technology

In a tantalizing paradox, smartphone screens are growing larger and larger over time while tablet screens are getting smaller and smaller. The average tablet screen size in the past year was 7.1-inches, compared to 7.8-inches in the year prior, and the average smartphone screen size was 4.9-inches in the past year, compared to 4.5-inches in the year before.34 Clearly, tablets have been too large and phones have been too small. So, what’s the optimal size and form factor for a mobile device, and what does the convergence of screen sizes mean for the future of both device types?

If you take a technological point of view and look into the future, I think the answers are obvious. Mobile phones and tablets are already becoming less differentiated over time, and within a few years I think they will converge into one multipurpose, pocketable device. Screen and battery technology are improving fast enough that even needing two devices will soon be pointless; why carry both a small-screened and a large-screened device–both of which are otherwise essentially identical–when you can pull out your mobile phone and have a screen that, for example, expands to tablet-size when you stretch it?

The tablet is really just a temporary evolutionary sidestep that overcomes screen and battery technology issues in mobile phones. There is no such thing as a tablet in the future.

Market

The tablet market has been growing at an unquestionably insane rate for several years, suggesting that there is a huge and growing market for the devices. But now that screens on mobile phones are getting larger and tablet screens are getting smaller, the market and practicality of tablets is going to significantly shrink. It has already started.

The first evidence of the iPad’s shrinking market was released just a few days ago, in Apple’s second quarter 2014 earnings filing.5 After years of double-digit percentage quarterly unit sales growth, and billions of dollars in revenue, the iPad has stopped growing. In fact, it has started to shrink significantly: Apple sold 16% fewer iPads last quarter compared to the quarter one year ago. iPhone sales, on the other hand, grew by 17%. Mac sales grew by 5%. Even for Apple, the PC market is outgrowing the tablet market.5 This could easily reverse, but I think it’s the first data supporting a long term trend.

Read Benedict Evan’s awesome analysis of iPad and tablet growth for more trend data.


If you want to predict the future, just look at what middle-class American teens are doing. And right now, they’re using their mobile phones for everything. In fact, many of them don’t even have private computers.1 These facts, combined with the factors above, paint a picture of the tablet as a fad, like the Netbook, and as a temporary sidestep on a radical change in the way people use the internet. In the future, we’ll all simply use our mobile phones for everything.

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  1. Teens, Social Media, and Privacy by Pew Research Internet Project 

  2. 25th Anniversary of the Web by Pew Research Internet Project 

  3. Screen Size Trends by Kantar World Panel 

  4. Tablets and E-Readers, 2013 by Pew Research Internet Project 

  5. Apple Q2 2014 10-Q earnings filing 

 
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