In a recent interview at the Milken Institute Conference, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins gave his opinion of where tablets might be going in the next five years, sparking a virtual firestorm of heated discussions all over the Web:

“In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore,” he told an interviewer at the Milken Institute conference in Los Angeles, according to Bloomberg. “Maybe a big screen in your workplace, but not a tablet as such. Tablets themselves are not a good business model.” You can watch the entire conversation below:

This will probably come as a bit of a surprise to anyone who has followed reported statistics on tablet buying habits; in fact, one research firm reported just this past month that the global tablet market hit a whopping 40.6 million units shipped just in the first quarter of 2013. Another study from Gartner looking at predicted tablet sales worldwide expects the market to grow to 3 billion units sold by 2017. And IDC states that tablets have a projected growth rate of 174.5% between 2012 and 2017:

Editor’s Note:
This is a guest post by Wendy Boswell, technical blogger/writer at Intel. She's also editor for About Web Search, part of the New York Times Company

“Consumers and business buyers are now starting to see smartphones, tablets, and PCs as a single continuum of connected devices separated primarily by screen size,” said Bob O’Donnell, IDC Program Vice President for Clients and Displays, in a statement. “Each of these devices is primarily used for data applications and different individuals choose different sets of screen sizes in order to fit their unique needs. These kinds of developments are creating exciting new opportunities that will continue to drive the smart connected devices market forward in a positive way.” – TechCrunch.com, “IDC and Tablet Growth”

“Pure hardware perspective”

Here’s a different quote from Mr. Heins where he explains his tablet statements in more detail:

“The tablet market is very challenging from a pure hardware perspective; there are very few companies that can make money on the hardware. So if we want to do that, we need a service value proposition on top of that. Some of that will be shown at BlackBerry Live, but we are running with a different concept that makes this [holds up a BlackBerry phone] your personal mobile computing power. Only this is your personal mobile computing power. So it's a slightly different approach to the market.” – Citeworld.com, “Maybe Thorstein Heins Isn’t Crazy: Tablets as an Interim Step”

Coming from this viewpoint, you can see the thought process and it’s actually one that makes sense, especially when you take the different technology strings that are coming together nowadays and project where they might be even a year from now. Matt Rosoff of Citeworld speculates what this could look like with one’s phone being the single device needed to access everything in the cloud, with form factors merely different receptacles for data:

Your work is not interrupted simply because you have to switch devices….You never have to log in. You never have to sync data between devices. All your stuff is where you want it, on whatever display you want it on. Your phone is both a smartphone and the personal authentication device that ties everything together.”

Smartphone vs. tablet

There are wildly differing viewpoints on whether or not the tablet is on its way out, as you might guess. One perspective is that of the smartphone taking over what the tablet does; which is basically content consumption and creation, albeit the latter on a more limited scale than, say, a standard desktop or convertible Ultrabook.

Many people believe that a smartphone and tablet might be redundant; at this point in technology, a smartphone does everything a tablet does, so why keep it around? The important difference here is usability, especially in regards to size. Tablets simply have larger screens than smartphones, which makes them useful in different ways than smartphones. Both are equally portable and mobile.

The basic issue here really is that of usability. Most people want something small and portable, easy to carry with them on the go, with features that include basic telephone options, texting, GPS, and all the other highlights you would expect in a smartphone. However, people also want something that they can sit down with, lightweight and portable, and not only check out their social media networks and email but also create Word documents, art, music, etc. Tablets take advantage of these different modes of usage.

Tablets and Ultrabooks

One of the more interesting speculations that some industry analysts make is this: tablets will eventually replace smartphones and laptops. This isn’t supported by any reliable statistic out there, and in fact, is contradicted by the ongoing growth of these target markets. If anything, tablets provide a casual sub-category to the laptop; most people use their tablet for play, then switch to the desktop or laptop when it’s time to access more productivity-oriented tools. The tablet market isn’t just another segment of the computer market; it’s a completely different market with a life of its own.

A report released from Forrester Research on tablet and smartphone use predicts that tablet ownership is set to skyrocket in the next few years, with the percentage of adults owning a tablet or tablet hybrid device set to increase from a mere 14% in 2012 to a whopping 55% by 2017. Forrester interviewed close to 10,000 “information workers” (defined as those who spend one or more hours a day using a computer to complete tasks) from all over the globe, finding that productivity, flexibility, and mobility were on the rise with today’s users: those surveyed used three or more different tablet, PC, or smartphone devices, worked from several different locations, and used many different apps to complete their tasks:

"Having apps on tablets and smartphone means that employees can carry their work in their pockets ... and work from any location: Meeting rooms, coffee shops and homes are just the most obvious new offices. Really, office space is now anywhere. How does your support for mobile apps stack up against the global competition?" – Forrester Research

Even though tablet use is definitely growing by leaps and bounds, PCs aren’t going anywhere. For enterprise platforms, desktop and notebook devices are headed up overwhelmingly by Windows. Productivity is simply highest on the PC, as indicated in another study from NPD:

“Despite these shifts in behavior, computers will remain the fundamental content creation device in consumer’s tool box for many years to come,” said John Buffone, director of devices, Connected Intelligence. “Consumers, however, are switching their entertainment-centric behaviors to tablets, smartphones, and connected TVs at warp speed."

Typically, while a tablet is used for content consumption and a PC for content creation, PCs are still the primary device of choice for any computing activity:

“All that being said, the PC isn’t dead. Internet browsing is still highest among PC owners at 75 percent, smartphones at 61 percent, and tablets at 53 percent, while Facebook interaction follows the same rank with PC owners at 63 percent, 55 percent for smartphone owners, and 39 percent among tablet owners.” – The Next Web

We’re seeing more laptops – in particular, Ultrabooks – show up with features previously only seen in mobile devices. Convertible hybrids with tablet and desktop functionality are a market that is growing, and growing fast. Are we merely seeing the natural evolution of form factors?

More form factors = good

There’s a glut of potential form factors for consumers to sample from (and developers to develop for) on the market. iPads, Microsoft’s Surface Pro, notebooks, Ultrabooks, Ultrabook convertibles, you name it, there’s no shortage of options, and that includes tablets.

Tablet market

The biggest reason why tablets hit it so big was pure usability. They can instantly be turned on, require almost no learning curve, and for most people, provide everything they need from email to blogs to movies. Tablets provide an easy route to content consumption, and as apps become more sophisticated, they are also routes for content creation.

There’s also a marked differentiation between developing and already developed markets when it comes to tablet and laptop use. We’ve seen PC growth decline in recent years simply because these machines are being measured in saturated markets; in addition, less people are running out to get a new PC every year because they’re made so well – with easily upgraded parts – that this is no longer necessary. Tablets represent an early adopter, emerging market where we’re seeing people purchase a tablet for the very first time, with replacements every couple years as new models come out.

A lot could happen in five years

While Mr. Heins’ statement is certainly controversial, there’s no telling what can happen in five years. Five years in technology is a very long time. Just to give you some perspective, just in the last few years, we’ve seen advances in perceptual computing, thinner notebooks with unprecedented battery life, smartphones that grab information from the cloud, smart TV’s that access streaming online media, and much more.

Who’s to say what we might say in the next five years? Do you agree or disagree with the idea that tablets might become obsolete? Give us your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wendy Boswell is a technical writer at Intel where she blogs about Ultrabooks and caters to Windows developers. She's also the editor of About.com Web Search and serves as a technical consultant on multiple start-ups.

Republished with permission.