The definition of technology is “applying scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.”
Since our scientific knowledge of the world is always advancing, that means our technology also improves accordingly. But it’s a causative relationship that isn’t always harmonious. The more revolutionary a technological discovery is, the more disruptive it will be to the previous incumbent discoveries before it.
Case in point, the early automobile rendered the horse and carriage obsolete. The light bulb overtook the candle. More modern examples include digital streaming services like Spotify and Netflix crippling traditional markets like CD sales and cable TV.
In a Darwinian inspired twist, technological disruption puts the pressure on established industries to adapt and evolve lest they become extinct themselves. This article will be examining how the introduction of the tablet has impacted the laptop.
But first, let’s set the stage with a quick, expository overview to see where modern computing all started.
In the mid-’80s and early ’90s, it was the home desktop computer that reigned supreme. Every home had a designated “computer room,” where the bulky desktop sat in its corner, a proud boxy, beige bundle of blinking lights and hard angles.
By this time, the laptop had already been kicking around since 1981 and was already hitting it off with the yuppie crowd, but it hadn’t quite found favour with mainstream audiences yet.
The late ’90s changed all of that when it brought paradigm-shifting improvements to computing such as wireless internet and networking, increased battery life, lightweight builds and affordability.
By 1998, everyone from students to the professional working class went through an upgrade boom that saw laptops seizing the throne. Laptops had an undeniably attractive consumer price point and were seen as effective technologies to increase professional productivity while also being portable. The desktop computer had been officially usurped and disrupted.
The Second Coming of the Tablet
Everyone knows that Steve Jobs and Apple brought the iPad tablet to the technological forefront in 2010. Most people don’t know that Bill Gates invented the tablet almost a full decade earlier in 2001.
Microsoft’s flagship tablet bombed with consumers for several reasons, mainly because of its dreadful user experience. There was no touch interface to speak of. Instead, users were forced to use an inefficient stylus. The operating system was Windows XP and not a streamlined OS for tablets. Also, it was costly, costing upwards of $2000.
It took Steve Job’s human-centred thinking to realize that tablets were never going to replace desktops and laptops, and therefore, tablets shouldn’t just be smaller versions of them. While all of this was happening, more and more people were learning and loving how to use smartphones. The iPhone had ingeniously introduced intuitive multi-touch finger gestures like swiping, scrolling and pinching that now had become standard operating procedures.
Everyone already knew how to use the iPad without ever having one. There was no learning curve required. Apple ended up selling 55 million units in the first seven quarters. It took Apple 22 years to sell 55 million Macs and five years to sell 55 million iPods to put that into perspective. The iPad was an instant runaway success and thus ushered in the tablet boom.
The Golden Age of the Tablet Begins
Apple’s massive success saw numerous companies like Samsung, Microsoft, Asus, Amazon, Huawei, Google, HTC and others all jump into the fray to get a piece of the action.
Tablet adoption exploded from 2010 to 2014, starting from 19 million units shipped to an astounding 219 million units shipped, while laptop and desktop sales began to flag. From 2015 and on, laptop sales stabilized, hovering in the 160 million range while tablet sales secured a comfortable footing in the market.
In short, consumers loved the low-cost, versatility, and, most of all, the smooth and unfettered user experience that tablets provided. It’s abundantly clear to see that the tablet's popularity was the direct result of the smartphone generation shaping and establishing how we fundamentally interact with our digital devices.
Convergence is Survival
The last ten years have shown us that tablets and laptops cater to different customer segments. We’re finding out that tablets are very appealing to young children and the older generation who prefer big, friendly and straightforward visual interfaces. Activities like watching movies, watching online videos, video-chatting, social media, online shopping, e-book reading and managing email are all rewarding user experiences tailor-made for tablets.
On the other hand, laptops and desktops will always be a staple with the professional working (and gaming) crowd because of sheer processing power, storage space, ability to upgrade, and peripheral options like connecting monitors and a keyboard and mouse. Laptops and desktops can tackle more work-intensive applications like Adobe Creative Suite, AutoCAD, web development software and more.
As meteoric as the tablet’s rise has been, it hasn’t wholly disrupted the laptop to the verge of being completely obsolete. Interestingly enough, the tablet has forced the tablet to adopt and incorporate the tablet's specific useful user properties, namely the touch screen.
In 2013, Microsoft revealed it is Surface Pro, a uniquely redefined “2 in 1” hybrid of laptops and tablets. Here was a device that was mainly a laptop but wrapped up in a tablet’s shell. During its initial marketing run, Microsoft aggressively pushed the following tagline: “The tablet that can replace your laptop.”
Microsoft learned from its lessons back in 2001, and it showed. The Surface Pro was praised for its vibrant display, convertibility, easy-to-use touch interface and sleek, thin design. It still had problems like short battery life and heating issues, but it was the right step in the right direction. More laptop than tablet, this 2 in 1 convergence device saw a 16% increase in sales over the next six quarters.
The 2 in 1 modular laptop presented the best of both worlds and boosted lagging computer sales in 2018. The versatile design allowed the device to be used by all users across the board. After a rigorous study session, students could flip the laptop into tablet mode and relax with some Netflix. The 2 in 1 came equipped with decent graphics cards and amazing 4K screens to appeal to gamers and creative types alike.
The tablet started as the manifestation of our collective desire for an easy-to-use touch interface and distilled digital experience. In the end, it compelled the stagnant laptop to evolve creatively, and from that synthesis came something not entirely brand new but unquestionably useful and appealing.