Analysis: Tablets to make PCs more important, not less

By Edward F. Moltzen on May 20, 2011 10:25 AM
Filed under Mobility

Flat consumer PC sales not a death knell for the industry.

The latest round of data showing declining sales by some Tier 1 vendors in the consumer PC space has given rise to new speculation that tablets will kill, or greatly diminish, personal computers for good this time.

But the tablets and smart devices that are the alleged culprits in the death of the PC lack the storage capacity to support the tidal wave of new data they will all create. At the same time, the math does not yet work to make the cloud cheap enough or quick enough to support full and fast access to a wide enough spectrum of personal data.

The result: tablets and smart phones for the foreseeable future will make personal computers more important, not less important, to the new use patters that are emerging.

Here are a few dynamics to consider:

• Apple iPads and BlackBerry PlayBooks, for example, are only built with a maximum of 64 GB of on-board storage – and that is in the highest-end and most expensive models. To support a modest collection of video, audio and photos, as well as a couple of dozen apps means additional storage is needed. Some will pay $99 a year for services like MobileMe, for an extra 20 GB of cloud-based storage, or hundreds of dollars a year for other services, but that isn’t a long-term solution either. Space runs out, even in cloud subscription plans. • Apple’s iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads are, in fact, tethered to Apple’s iTunes service for activation, for critical updates and for synchronization of data; iTunes works on either Mac OS X or Windows computers. So market-leading platforms are built specifically to tie into PCs, not replace them. • Quick access to data is the hallmark of the PC. But accessing data through the cloud for mobile devices is still an unpleasant experience all too often – largely because of bandwidth limitations. For example, while home or corporate networks can routinely provide 10 Mbps, 20 Mbps or 30 Mbps of file transfer speeds, 3G or public Wi-Fi networks throttle that down enormously. For example, hotels, airports and coffee shops that provide “free WiFi” will rarely, if ever, provide more than 1 Mbps or 2 Mbps; more likely, it is a fraction of that. That’s just not fast enough to send or receive large multimedia files. And smart devices are built to capture and create big, multimedia files from photo slide shows to movies to PowerPoint slide decks.

While Apple may in fact put its full iTunes service – including storage of already-purchased songs and movies – in the cloud, who will throttle up the bandwidth to make it a positive experience? The major wireless carriers have already shown they are willing to throttle down heavy bandwidth users, or charge them a premium. Soon, though, we’ll all be looking for lots more bandwidth if tablet and smart device sales continue on this trajectory. Then what?

NEXT: Why Tablets, Smart Devices Make PCs Look StrongerAnd while HP and Dell have said they have seen softness in consumer PCs, Apple and Toshiba, in fact, have not. Gartner Group said both of these PC makers saw year-over-year shipment increases in the U.S. during the most recent quarter. (Mac-based systems were up 18.9 percent, while Toshiba saw 10.9 percent growth.) Both vendors make PCs that have traditionally leveraged the multimedia experience that have made tablets and smart devices so successful.

Overall PC unit shipments may show sluggish numbers over the next several quarters, worldwide; that’s not surprising during a period of such immense disruption caused by new platforms and new use patterns. But with such a huge number of mobile platforms – iOS, Android, BlackBerry Tablet OS, WebOS, Windows Phone 7 – compatibility and management standards are all over the map. Security will be a big concern in the enterprise.

The PC will still be the one place where devices, stored data, platforms, security and management will come together.

The numbers show that during the past quarter, the PC platform may have suffered a wallet share loss to tablets and smart devices. But the data does not yet show that’s an indication of a stronger, downward trend for the long-term.

It also leaves a number of takeaways for smaller system builders and value-added resellers who are often left taking customers by the hand and walking them through the disruption.

First, changes in use patterns will require changes to PC construction. For example, Lenovo’s new ThinkPad X1 does away with an on-board optical drive, but has on-board SD card slots, USB 3.0 support and HDMI support – media that wasn’t supported during the last refresh cycle, but which will be vital in support of tablets and smart devices.

Second, the volume of new data created because of tablets and smart devices – photos, videos, multi-media presentations – will be unlike anything the industry has ever seen before. This data needs to reside somewhere, securely, and will need dead-simple backup options. PCs will need to adapt to this reality and the VARs and PC makers that address this first will benefit first.

Also, 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi have enabled mobility in ways we once could never even have imagined, but we’re still far short of wireless bandwidth Nirvana. The market will eventually figure this out.

As this generation of tablets and smart devices begin to show their limitations, the PC will emerge, once again, as the reliable, necessary personal computing device.

This article originally appeared at crn.com

 
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