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Tablet PC sales continue to surge, but what is the future of the desktop PC?

A while back, I wrote about a growing trend amongst businesses, and business users, in replacing desktop PCs in favour of a tablet PC replacement, pointing to the increasing versatility of the tablet PC in executing office functions.

Now research from two separate market intelligence firms, IDC and Forrester, forecast the kind of growth that the Guardian says demonstrates that tablet PC’s are “eating PC’s lunch”. Specifically, Forrester forecasts sales of 375m tablets globally by 2016, which equates to 46% compound annual growth from the 56m tablets it believes were sold in 2011.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Forrester puts this down to the convenience of tablet devices, outlining that while they are not necessarily the most powerful devices, they are convenient, hold a long battery life and the ease with which portable tablets can be jolted into life at a moment’s notice. The predictions come however, with the obvious caveat, that while tablet PCs may affect sales of desktop PCs, their influence will never erase the need for the latter completely – largely because of the ability of desktop PCs to harness enormous processing power for complex and data-rich tasks (a fact that reminds me of the images of WikiLeaks’ secret bunker in Stockholm, housing the organisation’s bandwidth-hungry mega servers. Some things need a little more juice than a quick game of Angry Birds…).

Where tablets go next remains unclear. Some believe increased integration to be the way forward – developing a tablet that is synchronised with the functions and capabilities of desktop computing, with a view towards convergence with laptop and notebook PCs at some point in the future. This suggests an evolution towards a lighter, smaller, but still powerful and portable version of many current notebook computers. 

Such a development may not prove to be an unreasonable assumption, but the fact remains that there are considerable challenges in building a machine capable of catering to the lean back experience – of reading text, browsing and interacting with social media – as well as tasks that not only require memory and processing power, but the precision and deftness that a keyboard, big screen and mouse facilitate. This is particularly true of business environments, where demands are at their most unrelenting in terms of computing capacity.

The other path for tablets would be, as many of us on this blog have suggested, to corner the lean back market, in a way that recognises the potential of the digital medium in providing a more sophisticated reading and social experience. As the Guardian article states: “Tablets sell. Fast”. It would be a mistake for the publishing industry to either neglect the tablet PC market, by putting exact replicas of their print offerings onto tablets, or to be intimidated by the spectre of entering a digital terrain that is as yet, somewhat lacking in form and shape.

The potential of tablet PCs is a definite opportunity for the publishing/media industry, and in my view, the industry should explore it without fear of failure. It is inevitable that in exploring new ground, mistakes will be made (Facebook’s social reader application is one such example), but in and amongst those rickety, loose-cobbled paths to nowhere, lies technological gold.