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Tablets are doing to computers what iTunes did to the full-length album

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Break it to fix it.
By Leo Mirani
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

More tablets than personal computers (PCs) will be shipped in the last quarter of this year, according to forecasts from research firm IDC. By 2015, tablets will overtake full-year PCs shipments by a smidge, and by 2017, they will outsell their clunkier counterparts by five to four.

This was inevitable. Tablets already outsell laptops in the US and China; that is set to go global this year. Tablets also drive more web traffic than mobile phones, of which there are many, many more. The reason tablets are so popular is that they finally give consumers the choice of not owning a full-featured computer.

Worldwide marketshare of tablets compared to combined marketshare of desktops and laptops. Figures for 2013 to 2017 are forecasts.

Think about this way: The music industry long relied on the format of an album to pad out the few good songs with some filler tunes, which could then be sold at a decent price. Since singles tended to be priced at a premium relative to an album, buyers paid a few dollars more for the whole set instead. Then iTunes came along and destroyed that model by selling every song at 99 cents. No more premium, no more bundling.

The same thing is happening to computing. Most people do not need full-service computers to accomplish their day-to-day tasks. Reading, emails, entertainment, and communication can all be easily carried out without a keyboard or mouse. A desktop is useful in an office environment, and a laptop is great for work on the move. But for everything else, a tablet will suffice. If you need a keyboard, you can buy one at a marginal cost. Ditto a mouse. It’s still cheaper than buying a full-fledged computer. As with budget airlines, there is no need to pay for accoutrements you don’t need.

Indeed, just as budget airlines spawned new add-ons that would never have existed on full-service airlines (priority boarding, for example), the tablet (and the smartphone) are spawning a new generation of peripherals that depend on it to serve as a hub for their existence. Witness the smartwatch, eyeglasses, TV controllers, and camera lenses. Little surprise, then, that PCs are becoming a niche market. It was past time.

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