Tablets eat the smartphone's lunch

Stephen Pritchard

Next Wednesday, Apple is 99.99999 per cent certain to unveil its second-generation iPad. If the rumours prove to be true, the announcement can only boost sales of tablets, both to consumers and business users.

This spring looks set to bring a plethora of new tablet devices to the market, including the BlackBerry Playbook, HP's webOS tablet, and Dell's Windows 7-based device. For businesses, this gives access to a much more mature, as well as diverse, market. Good though the iPad is, companies are often reluctant to build business processes around equipment offered by just one supplier.

One reason PC suppliers such as Dell and HP have held back from entering the tablet market, though, was worries about losing sales of (relatively) high-value laptops to (relatively) low-value tablets. Apple's own sales figures, however, suggest that this danger has been overstated. The company has managed to grow Mac sales alongside launching the iPad. And data from research that is also due out next week suggest that it is smartphones, rather than PCs, that are giving way to tablets.

Initial findings from mobility services vendor iPass' quarterly Mobile Workforce Report suggests that the number of employees selecting a smartphone as their only mobile device has fallen, by 14 per cent, to 49 per cent compared with the year before. This is a greater fall than among those saying their preferred device was a laptop. And it coincides with 20 per cent of workers saying that a tablet is now their device of choice.

The iPass survey is worth taking seriously because it tracks the behaviour of business users who depend on their mobile devices, day in, day out. iPass provides services such as managed access to Wi-Fi hotspots for corporates, so its customers tend to work for larger enterprises, and travel extensively.

There is no direct proof, as yet, that road warriors are throwing away their smartphones and buying tablets instead. In any set of statistics, it is all to easy to confuse coincidences with causal connections. But the iPass data suggests that there is a group of "reluctant" smartphone users who really do need something for work that fills the gap between a phone and a PC. For reasons of portability, ergonomics, or cost, these employees could not really use a laptop on the road, and had to make do with a smartphone to run their applications at least until the tablets came along.

Anyone who has used a smartphone for any length of time will have hit a point perhaps when viewing several web pages, or trying to read a complex spreadsheet where a larger screen would have been invaluable. Add in tablet devices' greater processing horsepower, and it is easy to see why, for quite a few tasks, the smartphone is left behind.

But that is no reason for complacency among PC vendors. As tablets become more powerful, they will start to eat into laptop sales more and more. And IT departments will need to prepare for another wave of new devices they will have to plug in to the corporate network.

As someone at Apple said, not too long ago, this changes everything. Again.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT PRO.

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