How Tablets Have Redefined the Rules of Personal Computing

It's pretty clear that the tablet is on track to become the most pervasive personal computer the market has ever seen.

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Bill Gates demonstrates a Tablet PC to attendees of the Newspaper Association of America's conference on April 29. 2003

Back in 1990, I was asked by Microsoft to look closely at a product in the works that turned out to be the company’s first tablet. The focus on this device was a stylus-based device centered on what at the time was called pen computing. A competitive product from Go Corporation had begun to define the concept of pen computing and Microsoft did not want to be left behind.

The importance of this product to Microsoft was huge. Bill Gates himself blessed it because it embodied part of a major vision he had of “a computer on every desk and and every home.” At the time, desktops were all the rage; laptops had started to enter the market but they were large and clunky and very expensive.

Gates and team loved the idea of pen computing because it gave them a key device that could be used to help fulfill a part of that vision. However, the technology was not available in those days to deliver a sleek tablet that had a color screen and that could accurately convert writing to text — two major parts of this product’s design. It was also very expensive. By 1992, the tablet computer had only minor success and Go Corporation, the company that led this charge, was almost out of business.

Ten years later, Bill Gates took the stage at Comdex and introduced version two of his tablet vision. This time he called it the MS Tablet Computer. Gone was the emphasis on the pen; instead it had a virtual keyboard, and the pen was mainly used like a mouse for navigation. Yes, you could use the stylus to take notes, but it still didn’t translate writing into text well, so it was de-emphasized as a feature. It, too, failed to garner any serious market attention, although it was a hit in vertical markets like the medical field, the transportation industry and other areas were these tablets made sense. In its best year on the market, it sold only about 1 million units. In this Comdex speech, however, Gates actually proclaimed that “the tablet was the future of personal computing.”

Tablet computing is 23 years old this year and is now hitting its stride to become a mass market product. During most of this time, PCs and laptops ruled the world of personal computing. While the laptop clearly made the computing experience more portable, its form factor was still fairly rigid thanks to its clamshell design. This meant that while portable, it was not a great design for using on your lap or while sitting on a couch or in bed. Also, laptops were optimized for productivity. They were used for work and school. In the home, they were mostly used for things like paying bills, shopping and e-mail; many people also used them to watch movies, especially on long flights.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010, it was clearly not the first tablet brought to market. Yet its design, ease of use and, perhaps most importantly, its focus as a portable consumption device is what really differentiated it from tablets of the past. He was the first to suggest that a tablet was not only a personal computer; it was also a personal game machine, personal music player and personal movie player. Jobs’ positioning of the iPad as a consumption device started rewriting the rules of personal computing. No longer were we tied to the laptop form factor. Instead, we were given a portable screen that just happened to have the guts of a PC in it, allowing us to use it just about anywhere and in just about any position.

I don’t think anyone can argue that the tablet has revolutionized personal computing and is starting to reshape the PC and consumer electronics landscapes. This year we will sell around 300 million PCs and laptops while we will also sell just over 300 million tablets. By the end of 2015, we will be selling less than 300 million PCs and laptops and will be selling well over 350 million tablets. In fact, some market researchers think that by 2017 we could be selling 500 million tablets a year around the world. This makes tablets a serious growth market. While I state that the tablet journey has gone on for well over 20 years, its accelerated growth has come in just the last three years.

Another interesting point of reference is that most homes in developed markets have one PC or laptop. By 2016, these same homes will have about three tablets each, making them in many ways the most important computing tools in the family. With tablets priced as low as $49 with most of the relatively good models priced between $129 and $199, it’s not too far fetched to suggest that every person in the home in these markets could have a tablet of their own by 2016. In emerging markets, we could have at least one tablet per home as well.

Although the smartphone has become the dominant personal communications device, its small screen makes it difficult to serve as a fully-functioning personal computer. Yes, it has a lot of the same power found in a tablet, but it falls quite short of being a device truly optimized for movies and videos and surfing the web. On the other hand, tablets with 7- and 8-inch screens make great media devices, while tablets with larger screens can be used for many forms of productivity.

PCs and laptops will never go away, since they still serve various digital needs for many people. But it’s pretty clear that the tablet is on track to become the most pervasive personal computer the market has ever seen. The tablet has literally redefined what a personal computer is to people all over the world.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.