There's a persistent debate going on in the IT industry over whether smartphones and tablets will replace laptops and desktops in coming years, especially in the workplace.
Market research firm Gartner on Monday issued a bold prediction that by 2018, more than half of all users will use a tablet or smartphone first -- instead of a laptop or desktop -- for all online activities.
Gartner said all online activities, which seems a bit of a stretch when it comes to the workplace, where many complex tasks, including the use of graphics and spreadsheets, are done with desktops, sometimes coupled with oversized monitors.
"The use pattern that has emerged for nearly all consumers [including workers], based on device accessibility, is the smartphone first as a device that is carried when mobile, followed by the tablet that is used in longer sessions, with the PC increasingly reserved for more complex tasks," said Gartner analyst Van Baker, in a statement.
That behavior pattern will eventually incorporate wearables, such as smartwatches, as they become widely available, Baker added. Voice and gesture input will gain popularity and content consumption will outdistance content creation, all of which will move users farther away from the PC, he said.
Creating content, however, favors desktop machines with bigger displays and, usually, more processing power. But Baker's point makes sense for workers who are mobile and tend to favor carrying a smartphone and a tablet over a laptop. He also includes growth in the use of tablets in the home environment, where it's easier to pull out a tablet while watching TV.
Executives over the past year have told Computerworld that they favor a lightweight tablet with a physical keyboard along with a smartphone (or two) for a business trip of several days, although they all keep a powerful desktop back at work, or have access to one.
"If Gartner had said 'most' online activities, I'd agree, but 'all' is too encompassing," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "For Twitter, Facebook, even email, that might be the case, but for activities like document processing -- still a major workplace requirement -- and other complex tasks, I don't see the PC, in all its forms, like 2-in-1s, going away."
Gartner's prediction about the growing dominance of tablets and smartphones comes when the PC shipment declines of recent years have begun to slow. "In 2014, the PC market proved it wasn't dead," said IDC analyst Tom Mainelli in a December presentation.
Desktop PC shipments will reach 133.5 million units in 2014. That's down 2.3% from 2013, which had a decline of 7.8% for the prior year, IDC said. Laptops shipments, meanwhile, will reach 173.4 million units in 2014, a decline of 2.9% over 2013. In the previous year. laptop shipments declined by 11.3%.
There was also a slowdown in 2014 in tablet shipments, which "drives the notion that PCs still play a key role for consumers and businesses," Mainelli said. Gartner and IDC both noted the tablet growth slowdown in October, but by late November, IDC said that tablet shipments would rise by 7.2% in 2014 -- reaching 235.7 million units -- compared to 52.5% in 2013.
The main reason for the tablet slowdown is that users are holding on to tablets longer, plus more users are taking advantage of full-fledged applications on PCs, rather than tablets.
Mainelli has also said there are ongoing questions about the longevity of the tablet form factor, which led some buyers to turn to desktops and notebooks. For businesses, PCs have been aging, with many running the expired Windows XP, but they are now being forced to upgrade their computers.
Another factor in the mix is the explosive growth in large-screen smartphones, sometimes called phablets, that have a 5.5-in. diagonal display, such as the iPhone 6 Plus, or even larger models.
"PCs still have a big role to play, primarily in commercial but also in consumers' lives," Mainelli concluded.
Gartner's Baker said tablet sales will be strongest in emerging economies, such as India. Sales will be less in the U.S. and other developed economies, where users find that a tablet that's multiple generations old can still do the job effectively.
Even if tablets and smartphones do get used more than half the time ahead of laptops and desktops for online work, as Gartner predicted, there's still going to be a variance in how workplaces and individuals approach the question.
"Remember, this is a personal preference," said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney in an email. "Some people want one system to do many things. Others insist on many computers working as one."
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