Why Are PC Sales Up And Tablet Sales Down?

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Editor’s note: Peter Yared is the founder and CTO of Sapho and was formerly the CTO/CIO of CBS Interactive.

When iPads first came out, they were hailed as the undoing of the PC. Finally, a cheap and reliable computing device for the average user instead of the complicated, quirky PC. After a few years of strong growth for iOS and Android tablets and a corresponding decrease in PC sales, the inverse is suddenly true: PC sales are up and tablet sales are “crashing.” What happened?

The tablet slowdown shouldn’t be a surprise given that tablets have hardly improved beyond relatively superficial changes in size, screen resolution, and processor speed. The initial market for tablets is now saturated: grandparents and kids have them, people bought them as Sonos controllers and such, and numerous households have them around for reading. People that want tablets have them, and there’s just no need to upgrade because they more than adequately perform their assigned tasks.

Businesses and consumers alike are again purchasing PCs, and Mac sales are on the rise year-over-year. Businesses in particular are forced to upgrade older PCs now that Windows XP is no longer supported. When purchasing a new PC, the main driver to choose a PC versus a tablet is fairly obvious: If you are creating any type of content regularly, you need a keyboard, a larger screen, and (for most businesses) Microsoft Office.

Reigniting Tablet Growth with “Super Tablets”

For the tablet category to continue to grow, tablets need to move beyond what Chris Dixon calls the “toy phase” and become more like PCs. The features required for a tablet to evolve into a super tablet are straight from the PC playbook: at least a 13” screen, 64 bit processor, 2GB of RAM, 256GB drive, a real keyboard, an actual file system, and an improved operating system with windowing and true multitasking capability. Super tablets form factors could range from notebooks to all-in-one desktops like the iMac. Small 7” and 9” super tablets could dock into larger screens and keyboards.

The computer industry is littered with the detritus of failed attempts to simplify PCs ranging from Sun Micrososytems’ Sun Ray to Oracle’s Network Computer to Microsoft’s Windows CE. But this time, it’s actually different. The power of mass-produced, 64-bit ARM chips, economies of scale from smartphone and tablet production, and — most importantly — the vast ecosystem of iOS and Android apps have finally made such a “network computer” feasible.

Businesses Need Super Tablets

As the former CIO at CBS Interactive, I would have bought such super tablets in droves for our employees, the vast majority of whom primarily use only a web browser and Microsoft Office. There will of course always be power users such as developers and video editors that require a full-fledged PC. A souped-up tablet would indeed garner corporate sales, as Tim Cook would like for the iPad … but only at the expense of MacBooks.

The cost of managing PCs in an enterprise are enormous, with Gartner estimating that the total cost of ownership for a notebook computer can be as high as $9,000. PCs are expensive, prone to failure, easy to break and magnets for viruses and malware. After just a bit of use, many PCs are susceptible to constant freezes and crashes.

PCs are so prone to failure that ServiceNow — a company devoted to helping IT organizations track help desk tickets — is worth over $8 billion. Some organizations are so fed up with problematic PCs that they are using expensive and cumbersome desktop virtualization, where the PC environment is strongly controlled on servers and streamed to a client.

And while Macs are somewhat better than Windows, I suggest you stand next to any corporate help desk or the Apple genius bar and watch and learn if you think they are not problematic.

The main benefits of super tablets to enterprises are their systems management and replaceability. Smartphones and tablets are so simple and easy to manage that they are typically handled by an IT organization’s cost-effective phone team rather than more expensive PC technicians, who are typically so overwhelmed with small problems that they cannot focus on fixing more complex issues. Apps can be provisioned and updated by both IT and end-users without causing conflicts or problems. If a device is lost, it is easy to remote wipe data and to provision a new device with all of the same settings.

Programs like BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) just accentuate the fact that smartphones and tablets are so easy to manage that enterprises are comfortable letting their employees pick the devices themselves. Users also get great benefits, including instant-on, long battery life, simplicity, and access to legions of apps from the iTunes and Play app stores.

Why Can’t the Big 3 Deliver a Super Tablet?

Former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée has long pointed out that Apple is gradually converging Mac OS X and iOS and will likely replace Intel processors with ARM processors. However, Apple is steadfast in maintaining a separation between the tablets and PCs and is bridging the divide with its new Continuity features. While Microsoft is willing to hack a touch interface onto a desktop experience, Apple will understandably not go there until the experience is perfect.

Apple will have to make this switch at some point soon, however, as users are increasingly expecting every screen to be touch-enabled. Tim Cook claims that he is not afraid of cannibalizing businesses, but Apple seems reticent to cannibalize its growing $20 billion Mac business.

Google’s Chromebook is essentially a PC that can only run web apps. As many commentators have puzzled, Google should be focusing on a desktop version of Android rather than Chrome OS. The market has decided that it wants native apps on smartphones and tablets, so clearly users are going to want native apps on their PC replacements, as well.

Android has a huge advantage with its large app store and developer community. The Chrome OS has an inherently flawed mission – why try to compete with Windows whilst Microsoft itself is moving beyond Windows? The new generation of ChromeBooks based on ARM chips closely matches the specs of a super tablet – there just aren’t any apps because of the Chrome OS constraint. The hardware is right, but the operating system is wrong.

Microsoft is actually very well positioned for a super tablet world with its Office 365 for iPad and Android, since as a subscription product it can draw revenue long after a manufacturer cashes in the thin margins on the hardware itself. This is an opportunity for Microsoft to make more money on a Mac than Apple does, as Microsoft did in the 1990s. Microsoft has already written off making money on Windows on low-end hardware and is setting itself up for a post-Windows future around devices and services under Satya Nadella’s leadership.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is a somewhat valiant attempt to reinvent the PC as a super tablet; however it is expensive and has a small screen, a subpar keyboard, a power hungry Intel processor and all of the headaches of managing Windows. The much-panned Surface 2 with Windows RT is ironically a step in the right direction, but its 32-bit ARM processor is underpowered and there aren’t many apps in the Windows Store. Microsoft coincidentally offered Windows CE devices in the late 1990s that were actually quite close to super tablets, but like with Windows touch tablet, they entered the market far too early.

The ecosystem around building, distributing and maintaining PCs is massive and Apple, and the PC companies are understandably reluctant to cannibalize their sales. Lenovo offers a 10″ Android notebook and HP is reportedly soon shipping one, but these are intentionally small and underpowered in order to not compete with notebooks. This vacuum presents an opportunity for companies like Sony that have exited the PC business but continue to sell smartphones and tablets.

Samsung in particular is reportedly looking to shutdown its PC business, and must be evaluating how to grow its tablet business now that its smartphone sales have slowed. Samsung could offer up Office 365 bundling in exchange for royalty-free device sales in its next patent conflict with Microsoft.

The Enterprise Legacy Web Holdup

An interesting side note is that large enterprises typically run numerous legacy web applications that do not work on modern web browsers, with some legacy web applications only working on ancient browsers like Internet Explorer 6. Many of these applications were built in the first wave of the Internet to enable “employee self-service” and have not been touched since that era. Perhaps the move to a simpler, cheaper PC replacement will finally shift the cost/benefit equation such that these web applications will finally be upgraded or replaced with SaaS solutions.

Here’s hoping that the Apple, Google and Microsoft can soon move into a super-tablet future where most businesses and consumers will be able to manage and customize their PCs as easily as they manage their phones and tablets … and us techies can move on from our part-time tech support jobs.

Featured Image: Guillermo del Olmo/Shutterstock