Is the PC losing its touch?

The industry’s response to the tablet has been to push touch in laptops. If the shelves of Best Buy are any indication, it seems to have worked. So why are there now reports that touchscreen laptops will be phased out?

The PC industry’s response to the rapid rise of tablets has been to push touchscreens into laptops of all shapes and sizes. Two years ago, at Computex in Taiwan, Intel announced it would use its Ultrabook fund to boost production of large touchscreens in anticipation of a 3-5x increase in demand for them over the next couple of years. The following year Intel said that with its Haswell platform the number of laptops with touchscreens had tripled in comparison with the prior Ivy Bridge generation.

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Based on a quick survey of the shelves at my local Best Buy, it sure seems to have worked. Of the 40 laptops on display, 31 had touchscreens. (This tally includes convertibles like the Lenovo Yoga that are clamshell designs, but it doesn’t include detachables or devices that are primarily tablets such as Microsoft Surface Pro.) Some of these are priced under $500. Intel now says that touch has penetrated the PC market even faster than its successful Centrino wireless platform.

So I was surprised to see a report today coming out of Taiwan (where most of the world’s laptops are made) stating that touchscreen laptops will be phased out. The technology news site DigiTimes reported that orders for new clamshell laptops with touchscreen have “disappeared completely.” I doubt that touchscreens are about to vanish from clamshell laptops altogether, but there are some reasons why this trend may have peaked.

First, as DigiTimes suggested, what little growth there is in the PC market is coming in large part from cheap laptops such as Chromebooks and Windows laptops that cost as little as $200. In that price range, there is little room for a touchscreen, which adds cost. Second, the arrival of the 14nm Broadwell Core M has led to a renewed push for 2-in-1s rather than clamshell laptops. To some degree this is semantics—the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro is a Core M-based clamshell that also converts into a 13-inch tablet.

But there’s also a difference between the penetration of touchscreens on laptops—which seems quite high, at least here in the U.S.—and actual usage. I’ve had several laptops with touchscreens, but I rarely use the feature and spend nearly all of my time on productivity tasks using a keyboard and mouse.

To some extent the touchscreen clamshell is a victim of Windows 8, which has always felt like two separate environments—one for touch and Windows Store apps, and the other for keyboard and mouse and desktop legacy apps—that did not work well together. This has been compounded by a lack of compelling touch-based Windows Store apps. Incredibly there is still no touch-optimized version of Office (with the exception of OneNote) even though Microsoft already offers versions for the iPad, iPhone and Android smartphones with an Android tablet version available as a preview .

Microsoft is aiming to fix these problems with Windows 10. The return of the Start menu and the ability to run Windows Store apps on the desktop with a traditional taskbar should make it easier to use Windows with a keyboard and mouse. Windows 10 could also include a feature called “continuum” that automatically shifts between touch and keyboard modes on 2-in-1s. Most significantly, when Windows 10 ships next summer, Microsoft has said it will also finally release a touch-optimized version of Office to go along with it.

It seems the market is settling around a few devices. The PC isn’t disappearing, indeed it has stabilized and this year will be better than expected at around 307 million units, according to IDC’s latest forecast. Tablets, after an initial growth spurt, are now growing at a slower rate and will come in at around 236 million units this year. Each device is good for certain tasks and has its own replacement cycle.

The 2-in-1 remains a much smaller market—less than 10 million units this year—but these devices are getting better all the time and the category is likely to grow over time supplanting some tablets and touchscreen clamshells. And there are other categories that work well with touch, in particular all-in-one desktops. So while there may be a lull in traditional clamshell laptops with touchscreens, overall the number of computing devices with touch will continue to grow.

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