Many have speculated that we’ve crossed the chasm to the Post-PC era, and that the PC as we know it will be relegated to niche-market status. While it is true that many more smartphones are sold each year than PCs, and that tablets are increasing market share rapidly, I believe business users and many consumers are still not in a post-PC era.

Instead, I think PCs will transform and meet mobile technology in the middle. This is especially true of notebooks, which make up the majority of PCs. But can notebooks compete with tablets?

Today’s tablet (e.g., Apple’s iPad, Android-powered devices from Samsung, Motorola, and RIM’s PlayBook) has much more processing power (CPU and graphics) than PCs of just two or three years ago. But tablets are not good at everything. Current generation devices are primarily for information and media consumption, but highly portable and easy to use. PCs, on the other hand, are great information- and content-creation devices, but much less portable and more complicated to interact with.

Over the next one to two years, this level of complexity will be reduced (as it has with the Windows 8 Metro interface), the usability will increase (more touch interfaces) and the portability of design (small like Intel’s Ultrabooks) will move towards the newer user-paradigms. This model has been pioneered by Apple’s MacBook Air, but Apple’s market share of notebooks won’t threaten the traditional Windows-based PC market in any substantial way.

What do I expect to take place over the next couple of years? Intel, Microsoft and the notebook vendors are not standing idly by; they are substantially morphing the traditional notebook to meet the challenge from by mobile devices. Upcoming hybrid designs will gain user acceptance by having today’s notebook features, coupled with the low power, ease of use, and long battery life of tablets and smartphones. Low power mainline chips from Intel (<15W) and others will give notebook vendors the freedom to move away from the current high-powered (low battery life) designs.

Windows 8 will allow enough flexibility to change the end-user experience while maintaining backwards compatibility with existing productivity and corporate apps. ARM-based notebooks running Windows 8 will help push the envelope. However ARM-based Windows systems will not be fully backwards compatible with existing apps, and I do not believe ARM will offer enough significant benefit over traditional Intel (or potentially AMD) based systems to garner more than 10 percent to 15 percent market share within the next two to three years.

The new notebook form-factors will have an impact on tablet market-share, especially in business markets where tablets offer some unique challenges for enterprises.

  • Although popular with end users, tablets generally do not offer a significant ROI for enterprises except in certain well-defined areas.
  • Tablets won’t replace more than 10 percent to 15 percent of enterprise laptops within the next two or three years. Most tablets will be supplemental, rather than replacement, raising over cost.
  • Although iPads will continue to dominate short-term, by 2013-2014 Android tablets to acquire a majority share of the market including in the enterprise where specialized features will be added.
  • A variety of screen sizes, price points and capabilities will expand the choices and enable more application scenarios. However, TCO for tablets will remain high, and on-board security will remain a concern for the next two to three years.

Organizations will need to adopt a “best use” strategy when evaluating the upcoming new form factors, and weigh not only market pressures and user desires, but also look at productivity and usage models that align with enterprise needs. In this regard, the new breed of hybrid notebook devices will effectively compete with tablets in many corporate scenarios and displace some current tablet deployments.

While initial cost of the new devices may be high, I expect prices to fall rapidly, and the overall ROI for these notebooks will exceed that of tablets for many users. So, bottom line, we are not in a post-PC era, yet.

Jack Gold is the founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, an information technology analyst firm based in Northborough, Mass., covering the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging technologies.

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