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Smartphones, Tablets, Laptops, and PCs: What's the World Coming To?
Written by Eric G. Harris, Pittsburg State University
2011 was a very significant year in the computer world. It was during 2011 that smartphones officially outsold personal computers (PCs) for the first time ever. For a society that is always "on the go," the PC and laptop can stay at home. Smartphones and tablets are changing both the consumer and business worlds, and they are greatly impacting the global economy.
The numbers are truly astonishing. In the fourth quarter alone, 158 million smartphones were shipped, as compared to a total of 120 million PCs, tablets, netbooks, and laptops combined!1 The total shipments of smartphones totaled 488 million in 2011, which was an increase of over 60% from 2010.2 These numbers indicate that smartphones are currently the hot consumer electronic product. Even though smartphones are hot, tablets are gaining ground very quickly. Their sales grew 274% in 2011 (63 million total units shipped for the year).3 To put these growth rates into perspective, desktops and laptops grew only 2% and 7% respectively, while netbook sales declined 25%. The proliferation of mobile devices, including laptops, is a clear indication that we truly live in a mobile society and that mobile technology is the wave of the future.
So what is driving the demand for these devices? As smartphones and tablets have quickly gained consumer acceptance, the products are approaching the point where they've gained massmarket appeal, analysts say. They are no longer considered a niche market for businesspeople or the affluent. Consumers from all demographic groups seek mobile access to the Internet. And the popularity of social media and smartphone apps continues to grow in popularity for most all consumer groups at the same time that consumers realize that they don't have to be home to enjoy their availability. What this means is that consumers are no longer content with just surfing the web, they now consider mobile technologies as essential parts of their social lives. It seems that maintaining a presence in cyberspace all but requires mobile technologies today. More consumers access social media sites by mobile technologies than through desktop computers.
What consumer need do mobile devices fill? Smartphones and tablets deliver both utilitarian and hedonic value. For many businesspeople, smartphones and tablets have become an essential part of everyday work life. Many business travelers prefer the smaller size of smartphones and tablets to the larger, more bulky, laptops.4 Business travelers can perform many workrelated duties on smartphones, from checking email to checking warehouse inventories. And many nonusers report the intention to adopt them if manufacturers can improve applications, power, and projection availabilities. Cloud technologies also make it more reasonable for the business traveler to access vital company information from the cloud. These are very rational reasons to use smartphones or tablets.
The average consumer also tends to prefer the smartphone and tablet to laptops when they are traveling. And, of course, they're fun to use! Most consumers are familiar with all of the apps that are available. Consumers also enjoy having a music player, camera, Internet connectivity, and games at their fingertips. For many consumers, social media connectivity also provides hedonic value. Many consumers simply enjoy the ability to keep up on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace through their smartphones or tablets while they are on the go.
What attributes and benefits do consumers seek with mobile devices? Attributes such as screen size, battery life, and storage capability are important. For some consumers, computing power is a consideration. App availability is also very important for most consumers. Of course, the reputation of the manufacturer and the warranty are important as well. The physical design of the products is also important, as are their accessories such as carrying cases and external keyboards.
So what has happened with the laptop? Laptop sales, as previously mentioned, have grown but they haven't kept up with smartphone or tablet sales growth. That doesn't mean that there aren't hardcore laptop fans out there. In fact, many consumers insist on the laptop. Laptop fans tend to lament the small size of the smartphone and the lack of computing power of the tablet.5 In response, smartphone marketers have developed a number of projection techniques for screens and keyboards, along with motion technologies such as Microsoft Kinect technologies for smartphones. Tablet manufacturers are researching ways to make their products more powerful. Will tablets overtake the laptop in the business world? At a growth rate of over 200% in the last year, this appears likely. Most consumers prefer to type on a regular keyboard versus a tablet keyboard (even when external keyboards are available for many tablets).6 But tablets tend to be more portable than are laptops. Also, tablets are less intrusive in business meetings because they fit nicely on a desk without having to extend a viewing screen abruptly. They also tend to have much better battery life as compared to the battery life of the average laptop. Of course, it takes more power to handle the computing strength of the laptop.
For many consumers, the debate is not really about tablets versus laptops, but rather about tablets versus smartphones. It may be that smartphone sales will eventually fall victim to tablets and that it won't be laptops or even PCs that disappear. Some analysts already predict this, suggesting that the most dramatic decrease in sales will soon be found with smartphones. Given that most consumers use smartphones for data capabilities, they really don't have many advantages over tablets other than simply having the telephone feature.7 The key question appears to be what the optimal size should be. But are tablets better than smartphones simply because of their size? One interesting thing to note is that smartphones are getting bigger while tablets are getting smaller. However, this doesn't address the issue of telephone capability. What if you could speak through a tablet like you can through a smartphone? Many tablets already include technologies such as FaceTime and Skype. As such, telephone capabilities might not be that big of an issue.
There is a possibility that smartphones will begin to decline in 2012 or shortly thereafter. If laptops or PCs do not disappear, then the growth in tablets will most likely come at the expense of smartphones. Will smartphones, which have enjoyed record sales, soon be in decline? The answer to this question is largely based on consumer needs, value, and decision making
What type of decision-making approach do most consumers use when deciding between smartphones, tablets, laptops, or PCs?