Why the desktop PC may see a comeback in the mobile era

iPads and Android tablets often can replace a laptop, but not always a computer

There's no question that more and more people are using tablets like the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 as their primary computer or at least -- in this multiple-device age -- as a primary computer to supplement or replace a laptop. PC sales -- the majority of which are laptops -- continue a year-long decline, whereas tablet sales grow and grow. Those tablets are displacing laptops or deferring the purchase of replacement ones as people see less value in them.

You can't blame the decline of PC sales on Windows 8 or the high prices of Ultrabooks. Although those are real factors, Apple's Mac sales have also faltered, albeit at a slower rate, after years of faster sales increases than Windows PCs. Instead, there's a fundamental behavioral change under way, a movement from the PC to the tablet.

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I'm in that transition myself: I stopped bringing my MacBook Pro on business and personal trips 18 months ago, going iPad-only. Heck, if Samsung had a cellular version of the Note 10.1 available, I might go Note-only instead. I'm not alone -- more and more people are doing the same.

Why? Because they can: Email, light to moderate office productivity such as for document review or presentation touchup, travel management, Web usage, PDF markup, even conferencing are all easily done on an iPad or Android tablet running Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" and the appropriate apps. A Bluetooth keyboard in the hotel room or conference room gets around the typing issue for those who can't acclimate to touchscreen typing, and the video-out capabilities in the iPad and some Android tablets mean you can give your presentations without a computer. These tasks are the primary uses of a laptop on the go.

What does a computer do that a tablet doesn't? There are two areas where a tablet doesn't cut it:

  • Multitasking. When I use my MacBook Pro, it's almost always connected to a large monitor (I'm fortunate enough to have a 27-inch monitor at both the office and home). That large screen real estate means I can have multiple apps and multiple windows within apps open simultaneously. That's very handy when I'm trying to bring together several streams of information: research material, commented drafts, related emails. Seeing all the pieces on a common canvas lets my brain make connections that are more difficult when switching from one screen to another. (This is why I rarely use my MacBook's own LCD screen -- it can hold maybe two windows at a time.)
  • Demanding apps. Although there's a lot you can do on an iPad or Android tablet, it can't run Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, AutoCAD, FileMaker Pro, Canvas, or iBooks Author. Although you can tackle spreadsheets on a tablet (I fill out my expense reports on the iPad while I'm on the road, for example), you can't handle complex Excel work such as use linked spreadsheets for budgets.

One day, tablets will likely run most common demanding apps and take full advantage of a larger screen's real estate for multitasking -- not just mirror the tablet display on the bigger screen, as is possible today. But not currently.

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