Do users view tablets as functional replacements for PCs or e-readers? Is the tablet category a “new” consumer electronics product, or the latest form factor for PCs? The answers are more complicated than one might think.
A recent consumer survey by Canalys of consumers in Western Europe suggests that current tablet usage resembles that of a PC, rather than a media player or e-book reader. After web browsing, both tablet owners and non-owners in Western Europe said they viewed tablets as devices for email, messaging and social networking.
Of course, that set of applications also fits the smart phone usage profile as well, with the exception of voice apps, of course. And even email, messaging and social networking are likely relatively soon to become features of some e-readers. To the extent that tablets shifts consumption of some common PC apps, it is a “PC substitute.”
To the extent that tablets are used in new ways, distinct from smart phones or PCs, tablets represent a clear new category of devices. The problem is that, right now, there is so much overlap.
Among tablet owners, all three email, messaging and social networking were rated much higher than e-book reading and video watching as most-used apps. But all those activities also occur on PCs and smart phones as well.
In fact, it might turn out that usage profiles vary between tablet ecosystems as much as they vary between categories of existing devices. Apple iPad owners used a significantly wider range of categories than other tablet users, the survey found.
The most popular apps among non-iPad owners tended to be productivity or news apps, such as email, social networking, news and banking. While iPad owners also used these apps, they reported a much higher use of general web browsing and video consumption.
Feedback from potential pad owners shows how tablet marketing campaigns, some of which refer to the devices as “media tablets,” have influenced their perceptions, Canalys believes. “In reality, pads have a wide range of uses,” says Canalys. While web browsing, for example, does include finding and consuming content, it also includes many other activities.
Canalys tracks tablet sales as part of the broader “PC” market. That's a logical choice; more logical than tracking tablets as part of the mobile phone, or smart phone market, which shows some of the distinctions between market categories.
Also, to complicate matters, game player consoles now support Internet access, and can be used as devices supporting some of the apps used by tablet, PC and smart phone users. Analysts do not track game playing consoles with PCs, smartphones or e-readers. And yet there are areas of clear functional overlap.
One additional way of looking at matters is that tablets actually are the latest evolution of PC form factors. As it seems to be developing, many business users prefer to carry a tablet rather than a notebook when traveling or at meetings, as do many consumers. What that might indicate is that, in many cases, PCs are “overkill.” Users, professional, business or consumer, frequently do not need a PC appliance to do much more than support email, messaging and web access.
You can argue about whether email is content creation or consumption; it typically involves both. So does messaging typically include both content creation and consumption. Web apps can be a mix, but generally weighted towards consumption. Gaming and video are consumption activities, as is music listening.
In business settings, tablets are likely to complement PCs. In consumer settings, it is less clear. In some cases, a tablet might already reflect the important applications some consumers actually use and require. Over time, we are likely to see an evolution of docking and peripheral support for tablets that will blur the lines between tablets and PCs even further.
Still, Apple’s argument that the tablet “is not a PC” reflects an insight that PC makers seem to have missed. By stripping out some of the “general purpose” features a PC supports, and optimizing tablets for ease of interaction, Apple seems to have unearthed a key distinction between computing appliances: much of what people actually do with computing appliances these days is media consumption, play and learning, with some light needs for content creation in the form of emails or messages, rather than “documents, spreadsheets and presentations.”
It might not yet be possible to answer the question of whether a tablet is a replacement for a PC or a totally new type of appliance. Consumers might not care. And the ultimate answer could be that the tablet is both a new type of appliance and a type of PC.
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