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That tablet in your hand could soon become the most popular mobile device sold — even the ubiquitous notebook PC, new research finds. Shipments of tablets — exemplified by Apple’s iPad — will almost quadruple to 416 million units by 2016, up from the current 121 million units, the research firm NPD announced today.

Although notebooks will still account for 49 percent of the mobile PC market, growth will be smaller than in tablets. Notebook shipments will hit 393 million units in 2017, up from 208 million in 2012, NPD DisplaySearch says. Taking notice of the rise of tablets, notebook makers are increasingly adding tablet-like features, including touch features and a thinner profile, researchers say.

“Consumer preference for mobile computing devices is shifting from notebook to tablet PCs, particularly in mature markets,” NPD DisplaySearch senior analyst Richard Shim said.

Mature markets, such as North America, Japan and Western Europe will continue to be the bedrock of tablet demand, according to NPD. These mature markets now make up 66 percent of tablet sales and the percentage is expected to remain in the 60 percent range through the study’s time frame. Tablet PC shipments will reach 254 million units by 2017, up from 80 million in 2012.

Why so much demand for tablets in mature technology markets? Partially, mature markets have a more robust infrastructure to support the devices, but also it is a case of where tablet marketers are focused. “New entrants [like Microsoft] are tending to launch their initial products in mature markets,” Shim said. “Services and infrastructure needed to create compelling new usage models are often better established in mature markets,” he notes.

Microsoft’s recently-unveiled Surface tablet is an example of the merging of technologies once thought reserved for mobile PCs. As NPD explains, longer battery lives, more powerful processors and feature-rich operating systems are being added to tablets. At the same time, laptops and notebooks, realizing the popularity of tablets’ ultra portability and hands-on access, are adopting tablet-like features. As a result, consumers may see tablets and notebooks merge into a single device. Similar technology transfers have happened with televisions adding internet access and laptops and tablets often used while watching television.

Tablets are also growing to become content creation, as well as content consumption devices. Tablets now are being given longer-lived batteries, better displays (such as Apple’s use of the Retina display on its latest iPad) and multi-core processors – moves which NPD said are making the devices a “compelling alternative” to notebooks.

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