Hype vs. reality

Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to InsightaaS.com
Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to InsightaaS.com

Last year, analysts predicted that tablets would kick laptops to the curb. To hear them talk, you’d have thought that anything with a keyboard was crawling away, whimpering, as the wave of touchscreen tablets swept over it. Enthusiasm (and good marketing) was pushing consumers and businesses away from traditional PCs.

That’s not to belittle the growth of the tablet market — it has undeniably been very healthy, though it’s slowing as the market saturates and people figure out that not all use cases are appropriate. But, as usual, the excitement over something new has been overshadowing the dull realities of getting things done.

Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner, put it this way: "Tablet substitution of notebooks will start to dissipate from this year onwards as consumers and businesses align the right device with the right usage pattern. As they do this, we will see where dedicated devices (such as tablets), or hybrid devices (detachable or convertible devices), fit in the overall portfolio of devices."

In addition, the tablet hype is dying down. Other shiny things are hitting the market (such as the Apple Watch), sending people off in pursuit of the Next Great Thing (tablets are so last year). And besides, experience is supplanting the very annoying fallacy that a new technology must by definition kill anything that came before it. That’s nonsense — it just provides more choice. We have, as Atwal put it, an overall portfolio of devices to pick from.

Consider, for example, the personal computer. According to analyst estimates last year, the PC, regardless of operating system, was doomed, and was inexorably being replaced by the aforementioned tablets. This year, analysts are revising their tablet growth figures to reflect the fact that, while tablets are enticing, they can’t completely replace a personal computer. There’s actually (gasp) a place for both form factors in the ecosystem. Gartner even shows modest growth in the PC market, especially in ultramobiles (Ultrabooks, Chromebooks, netbooks, notebooks and Smartbooks), and ABI Research predicts a respectable 26 percent compound annual growth rate in the ultramobile category by 2019. That doesn’t sound like a dying market to me!

Even the humble desktop still has its place, especially in the workstation market where expandability and sheer horsepower are key. In fact, whenever mobility isn't a necessity, you still get more bang for the buck with a desktop computer. The form factor is in decline, no question, but it's not dead yet.

Someone once said "figures lie, and liars figure" — meaning pretty much that any data can be manipulated to tell the story you want to reveal. That may be true, but the bigger problem lies in peoples' inability to make sense of the accurate data that they see. For example, they fail to realize that 1,200 percent of almost nothing is still a tiny number; they just see the 1,200 and get excited. Five percent of several million, on the other hand, is substantial, but hey, it's "only" five percent. Yawn.

Thus, it’s easy for an emerging technology to experience mind-boggling growth, on a percentage basis; it's starting from scratch. It’s harder for more established categories. So when skyrocketing growth rates slow, people take it to mean that the product or category is in decline, when in truth the absolute growth at the smaller rate may put more units in peoples' hands, and more dollars in the vendor's pocket. It's basic arithmetic.

Yes, not math, arithmetic — grade school stuff. Which number is bigger, and all that good stuff that we forget as soon as we get out of school. Without that knowledge, we're at the mercy of people who rely on society’s general innumeracy to make things look better — or worse — than they really are.