Has the Tablet finally killed the humble PC?

Rob Borley
on 29 October 2013

Analysts have been predicting the death of the PC from the moment they began to appear on every desktop and in every house. Until now the humble desktop PC has successfully fought off every threat, but the tablet computer finally appears to be taking a significant chunk out of the market. At Dootrix we are continually asked by IT depts. if it is now time to retire and replace the PC.
Tablet kills PC

April 3rd 2010 – The day one Tablet changed the market

The launch of the iPad in 2010 permanently changed the computing landscape. Although tablet computers had been tried in the past (Windows XP Tablet anyone?), each had failed due to a lack of app ecosystem, poorly specified hardware or general indifference on the part of the public.

The iPad however become an instant success, going on to sell millions of units, as has every revision since. According to Apple, 14.6 million iPads were sold in the second quarter of 2013 alone.

Factor in the rise of Android tablets, like the Kindle Fire and Samsung Galaxy and it is easy to see why PC sales declined for the first time ever in the same period. IDC reports that PC sales dropped by a total of 14% worldwide during 2012, although manufacturers are still shifting about 350 million units annually. Gartner predicts that smartphones and tablets will pick up the slack, selling around 1.02 billion units during 2013.

So it’s over for the PC?

With PC sales continuing to decline with each passing quarter, it is easy to believe that the desktop computer has had its day, and will soon be replaced by tablets as standard. For home consumers who typically consume content, tablets could conceivably become the de facto standard device. In the enterprise however, the situation is much more complex.

Although tablets provide a portable way to access and display data any place any time many tasks, particularly data entry, remains more troublesome. The use of customised, web-accessible GUIs can make the process easier, although legacy applications are often almost impossible to access or update in this way. For many businesses, maintaining a PC network is cheaper and easier than purchasing a replacement system, or having a custom mobile module developed.

For sedentary roles, desktop PCs make more sense than any other form factor because there is no need to compromise on screen real estate, input methods, processing or storage capacity or vendor limitations. Although apps can be used to achieve huge productivity gains on the move, once stationary, the limitations of the system quickly become apparent, reducing productivity.

At work it’s both Tablet and PC, not either/or

Microsoft has attempted to stem the flow of sales away from PCs by creating a tablet oriented OS (Windows 8) and a portable PC that mimics a tablet (the Surface). Neither has proven to be particularly popular so far, with users and IT departments alike sticking with “true” tablets and desktop PCs.

Although tablets and PCs are used in different ways, end users expect a consistent experience across both. Email for instance looks completely different when accessed from Mail on an iPad to Outlook on a desktop PC. However the similarity between both is enough for users to be (a) familiar and (b) productive.

And the same goes for any business application. To properly integrate tablets into the enterprise, creating interfaces to corporate systems is unavoidable. There are however two routes to achieving this.

The dedicated app interface

Although mobile mail apps display less on screen initially, they still provide complete access to all the data stored in the user’s mailbox. For this reason, mobile apps need to provide access to the same levels of data if they are to be truly useful. Accessing the data may have to be provided in a slightly different way, but limiting availability will also limit usefulness and productivity.

A good mobile app does not remove functionality, but instead reduces, refines and simplifies the interface. The app should understand the user’s context and display or hide functionality accordingly to ensure that key information is readily available with minimal effort on their part. If additional functions or data is required, it can then be unhidden manually by the user, or according to changing context within the app itself.

Choosing a dedicated app, businesses can exercise greater control over how data is captured, accessed and presented, making their staff more productive in the field by simplifying the interface.

The hosted desktop

Ironically, the full desktop experience can be completely replicated on a tablet by use of a hosted desktop solution. Similar to a remote desktop solution, users connect over a VPN to a virtual PC desktop that has been pre-configured with all of the required software that they would find on their machine in the office. In this way, employees have almost exactly the same user experience as they would back in the office. And because all of the processing is offloaded to the virtual machine host, the limitations of the tablet are not so apparent.

Herein lies a problem however. The touch-based interface of a tablet is at odds to the physical input methods of a PC’s keyboard and mouse. Mimicking the right-click of a mouse for instance is unintuitive, and often inconsistent across different apps. PC software also tends to be designed for use on larger screens, requiring additional scrolling to access UI elements – a major source of frustration and lost time for mobile device users. Shrinking the PC screen to fit on a 9.7” iPad for instance makes text virtually unreadable and on-screen buttons extremely difficult to “click” correctly.

It’s a repositioning, not a burial,

The PC is not dead, and it still has a purpose in the foreseeable future. The move to a mobile workforce is challenging the PCs dominance, but it remains an essential part of the corporate network. Tablet technology is changing the way we work, but there is still some way to go until it completely takes over the enterprise.


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