Are Tablets Replacing Laptops and Becoming the Future of Computing?

I. Introduction: What is a Tablet Computer?

The tablet computer is one of the biggest computing trends in the last several years’ thanks in large part to Apple’s iPad released in 2010. The iPad and other competitive tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab became so popular for a number of reasons. Many people enjoyed their distinct size; they are smaller than a laptop, but larger than a smartphone. Another reason consumers are drawn to the tablet computer is the use of a touch screen interface, which with the introduction of the iPad, has become so clean and user-friendly that even children are beginning to learn to use them for entertainment and educational purposes. The next reason tablets are doing so well right now is that they are affordable. “Cheap stuff sells more than expensive stuff, and tablets are among the most affordable consumer electronics devices on the market today. Even the iPad costs no more than mid-range laptops, and some Android tablets can be had for $200 or less (1).” Popularized by their user-friendly interface, there are now dozens of high-performance tablets on the market.

The purpose of this site is to take an in depth look at what tablet computers are, look at their history and market trends, and answer the question of whether or not the tablet is capable of completely replacing laptop computers in the not to distant future. In order to answer this, let’s briefly define what a tablet computer actually is. “A tablet is a type of notebook computer that has an LCD screen on which the user can write using finger and swipe actions or by using a special-purpose pen, or stylus. All user input is directly via the LCD screen and not a keyboard or mouse. On a tablet computer, handwriting is digitized and can be converted to standard text through handwriting recognition, or it can remain as handwritten text. The stylus also can be used to type on a pen-based key layout where the lettered keys are arranged differently than a QWERTY keyboard. Tablet PCs can be equipped with a keyboard and/or a mouse for input. The tablet PC relies on digital ink technology, where a digitizer is laid under or over an LCD screen to create an electromagnetic field that can capture the movement of the special-purpose pen and record the movement on the LCD screen. The effect is like writing on paper with liquid ink (2).” The iPad and tablets alike were initially trending for their entertainment capabilities like browsing the web, streaming videos, and gaming. However now, tablets are now being used more and more as a productivity tool. Hybrids tablets like the Microsoft Surface RT, which was released in 2012 and introduced tablets using physical keyboards, are now being marketed as business productivity devices that are capable of replacing laptop computers. This brings up the question; will tablet computers really become fully capable of replacing the business functionality and mobility of laptop computers? While laptops have been in the market since the late 1980’s and were popularized for their portability; are tablets the next step to furthering our production on the go and replacing the original mobile productivity device?

II. The History of Tablets

Before we answer this question, lets take a look at the history of the tablet; where did it come from, who were the innovators, and what is it today? Despite its recent massive surge in the market place, the tablet computer or variations of the tablet have actually been in the computer market since the late 1980’s. “The idea of portable touchscreen devices connected to information, and often equipped with advanced functionality such as wireless connectivity, artificial intelligence, speech recognition and has prevalent in the science fiction since 1960s and early 1970s. Examples of this are in the Newspad “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the PADD in “Star Trek” franchise. A man who pioneered the idea and creation of tablet computers is Apple’s Alan Kay. In 1972 before joining Apple, Alan Kay wrote a published journal titled ‘A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages’ where he described the development of such a device that he called a “Dynabook”(3).” However the company, Linus, released what many have regarded as the first tablet computer in 1987 called the Linus Write-Top. “The Linus Write-Top was a handheld computing device that included a stylus and was the first to contain handwriting recognition software without a touchscreen. Users also had to ‘train’ the software to recognize and convert their handwriting into text (4).” Then in 1989, Jeff Hawkins and GRiD Systems released the GRiDPad; another tablet device that came with a stylus. Both the GRiDPad and the Linus Write-Top ran Microsoft’s MS-DOS 3.30 operating system.

Then in 1993, Apple entered the young tablet market with the release of the Apple Newton MessagePad. However Apple didn’t brand this device as a personal computer; “they branded it as a Personal Digital Assistant also known as ‘PDA’ (even though personal assistant devices like such have existed since 1984 with devices like the Psion Organiser). The Newton ran its own operating system called Newton OS and The built-in handwriting recognition is the Newton's most unique and interesting ability, being able to interpret the user's handwriting (hand-printing as well as script) into computer-readable text (5).” During the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s many technology companies had their own model of the PDA and they were selling well. Then in 2001 Microsoft released the first tablet device that was actually called a tablet, the Tablet PC. “It served as a fully functioning PC in tablet-form, running off Windows XP, with a detachable keyboard. It also had both handwriting and voice-recognition software. In the market however, the Tablet PC didn't do very well due to it's size, weight, and lack of applications (4).” Although sales of the Tablet PC weren’t very good, the design was emulated by a number of different companies. And by the mid-2000s, there were lots of tablets to on the market from Motion Computing's LS800 to the Lenovo ThinkPad. However these many of these tablets were expensive, limited in functionality and not popular with consumers. On April 3, 2010, arguably the most significant tablet device entered the marketplace. Apple released the Apple iPad and the tablet market would never be the same. Its operating system was iOS 3.2 and shipped with 256mb of RAM and it’s CPU was a 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A8. With its 7.75 × 5.82 in LCD touch screen, sleek edges, and beautiful touchscreen interface, the iPad has set the standard for what high performing tablets are today.

III. The Tablet Market Today

Now that there is a better understanding of the upbringings of the tablet computer, let’s take a look at what the tablet market looks currently looks like.After the iPad’s release and it’s many iterations from the iPad Air to the iPad Mini, many computer companies have followed the model of the iPad. The market today is flooded with different tablets of various shapes and sizes and there are even subcategories of tablets like phablets (combines smart phone and tablet) and hybrid tablets. From the Samsung Galaxy Tab series to the Microsoft Surface Pro the market has taken off and is projected to keep on going.

graph 1

The following graph is provided by Statista and depicts the global tablet market share of tablet vendors based on total global shipments from the middle of 2011 to late 2016. It is clear to see that that in the early 2010’s, Apple had control of the market share having just released the iPad the prior year. Apple from 2011 to 2012 occupied approximately 60% of the market with companies like Samsung and Microsoft only occupying around 10% combined. Samsung released the original Galaxy Tab in 2011 however the Galaxy Tab series sales were slow due to the hype of the iPad. Starting toward the end of the 2012, Apple’s large lead of the global market share takes a large hit jumping from 60.5% to 40% and begins slowly steadily decrease. During this time Samsung jumped from a 4% to a healthy 12% and has stayed relatively constant till 2016 at around 15% of the global market shares. The surprise of this data is that other companies not listed among in key have steadily risen starting around 2012 and now take up 44% of the total market.

graph 2

This graph provided by Statista depicts and well projects the forecast for the global market share held by tablet operating systems from 2013 to 2020. While the Apple is still the largest vendor of tablets, it has not been doing well in terms of the market share of its operating system, iOS. “Although it was the most successful device on the tablet market when it came out, the iPad, with its own operating system, the iOS, has been losing ground in front of its competitors. As of 2015, Apple’s tablet device holds a 23.5 percent market share and has registered a slight decrease in global sales, from 26 million units in the first fiscal quarter of 2014 to 21 million units sold in its first fiscal quarter of 2015. On the other hand, iOS’ main competitor, Google’s Android, owes its success to its strong collaboration with many mobile device manufacturers and high adaptability to various types of hardware. In 2016, Android is projected to hold more than 60 percent of the tablet OS market share and over 80 percent of new smartphones were Android-operated devices. Microsoft’s Windows mobile OS is coming in a distant third on the tablet operating system market, but its share is expected to increase in the upcoming years (7).”


This graph provided by Statista compares the global shipment figures (in the millions of units) for tablets, laptops and desktop PCs from 2010 to 2015 and also offers a forecast until 2020. In 2010, with the announcement of the iPad, only 19 million tablets sold compared to 358 million desktops and laptops (5% of the total computer sales that year). Then after the iPad, was released, in 2011 the total tablet sales rose to 76 million global sales (17% of total computer sales). In 2016, tablets make up 50% of total computer sales. “Global tablet shipments will hit 406.8 million units shipped per year by 2017. In 2014, 20.7 percent of the world’s population owned a tablet device (8).” Based on these statistics it is clear to see that tablets are the future of computing, as they become more portable, more beautiful, and more powerful.

IV. Conclusion: The Future of Tablets. Can they replace Laptops?

The iPad and tablets of the early 2010’s have always been great for performing casual computing task like browsing the web and streaming video. However, most consumers never considered them to as a replacement for laptops. Since laptops for a long time have been and still are more powerful and better suited for carrying out productivity based tasked than tablets. This is beginning to change with the rise hybrid tablets, which are tablets that generally have a detachable QWERTY keyboard. “Today, these tablet-laptop hybrids, which blend the mobility and touchscreen friendliness of a tablet with the capabilities of a PC are on track to becoming the fastest growing computing category. Shipments of so-called 2-in-1 devices like Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 and the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, for example, are expected to grow almost fivefold this year (9).” As more and more business open up to the hybrid tablet, the sales of laptops like desktops will soon decline in the near future.