Report from the street: Tablets are kicking laptops to the curb

Summary:Reports have been showing a rising trend of leaving the laptop at home and taking the tablet for the day. Observations from the street show this is happening at a rapid pace.

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Analysts have been consistently reporting that tablet sales are eating into laptop sales. The regular reports of good tablet sales accompanied by lower laptop sales back up that trend. While prudent to take such reports with a grain of salt, my observations from the street indicate this is indeed happening, and at a very fast pace.

The ability to leave the power adapter at home and confidently get 10-12 hours of heavy usage of the tablet is totally liberating.

Since moving to downtown Houston this past summer I have spent a lot of time both in the busy streets and working at high-traffic venues. My curiosity about common work habits, especially pertaining to mobile technology, has pushed me to closely observe what people are carrying with them on a daily basis. I've been particularly interested to see first-hand if the apparent trend of leaving the laptop behind in favor of the tablet is prevalent. The conclusion of my observations is that indeed many folks are grabbing a tablet when heading out for the day.

I admit that this observation in the street has turned me into a pest of sorts. I have approached quite a few people walking on the street and working in public venues to question them about the mobile tech they are using. This observation resulted in seeing so many people carrying and using tablets in public, with laptops lagging far behind. While I have long used a tablet myself, I am surprised that people from all walks of life are doing the same.

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The folks I have approached have ranged from college students to lawyers and engineers. Downtown Houston is close to several major universities and students are a frequent sight in coffee shops and sidewalk cafes. My stomping ground downtown is very close to the civil/criminal court system so lawyers are also present in numbers. There are dozens of companies in the area involved in the oil business and engineers are often out in packs.

A typical outing to a venue with a number of professionals working in public will find at least two or three using tablets. Many use them as they ship, i. e. without an external keyboard. Many of these folks can be seen typing away on the tablet's onscreen keyboard. A few will have a tablet in a keyboard case, similar to my own preferred working arrangement.

I always ask folks I approach how they like using a tablet as opposed to a laptop. Without fail this gets an enthusiastic response that mentions how much better it is for them since they started leaving the laptop at home. Almost everyone volunteers that they find, surprisingly in most cases, that they can do everything they need to do throughout the day without compromise. Most admit that they didn't believe it would work that way but that happily it does.

The overwhelming advantage of using a tablet over a laptop that is mentioned in these conversations is battery life. The ability to leave the power adapter at home and confidently get 10-12 hours of heavy usage of the tablet is totally liberating. Not only do these tablet users no longer worry about getting through the day, more importantly they don't have to keep looking for a publicly available power outlet as they used to do with the laptop.

Peace of mind is a recurring topic with tablet users. Several lawyers I've spoken with, each individually on separate occasions, have shared that peace of mind has improved their work days. Where they previously would take a laptop to court, they now take the tablet to greater benefit.

Some use the tablet's onscreen keyboard for notetaking in the courtroom, while others use external keyboards. One attorney also uses a stylus to take handwritten notes. All mentioned the lack of concern about battery life as a big reason they find the tablet better than the laptops they used to bring to court.

A couple of them shared horror stories of using a laptop in court, from laptops that died during the day to the need to reboot a laptop that hung in the middle of a trial. As they told me, judges have no sympathy for such delays in the courtroom. "The tablet simply works" is a common refrain from the legal crowd.

The dozens of people I have approached have been in all walks of life, not just students and attorneys as I've mentioned. By and large these are not techies nor early adopters, they are regular people. Many tell me they originally got the tablet for the leisure activities they are recognized to be good for, reading, surfing the web, etc. While using the tablet for those activities they got more familiar with quality apps that allowed the device to take on more and more work-related activites. In time they discovered they could use the tablet to totally replace the laptop in their mobile workday.

Most of the tablets I encounter in the street are iPads with some Android tablets thrown into the mix. My own experience proves that any of these tablets can handle everything these folks are using them for throughout the day.

I have yet to see a Surface RT being used in the wild, but they've only been available for a short while. I expect to start seeing them soon. The typical Surface buyer fits the mold of those leaving the laptop at home.

It's worth mentioning that a common complaint I hear about laptops is the cost and the impact that has on battery life. Laptops have to be used by most owners for several years due to cost, and over time the battery life takes a nosedive. Many folks who've switched to a tablet complain that their older laptop was down to only lasting two or three hours on a charge, making it a pain to use in public. That caused them to spend too much time each day worrying about the rapidly depleting battery, and looking for a public power outlet. I am surprised at how frequently peace of mind was given as a major factor for leaving the laptop at home and throwing the tablet in the day bag.

These observations by no means indicates that laptops are no longer needed. There are many folks who will continue to need full laptops for the foreseeable future. What they do indicate is that many people who don't expect a tablet to replace their laptop are discovering that it can easily do so, once they get exposed to the utility of the tablet.

This is no doubt what is keeping executive of laptop makers up at night. This trend straddles the consumer/enterprise fence as tablets are being used full-time by increasing numbers. It is proof positive that Microsoft's reimagined Windows 8 and its decision to make its own hardware is good in the long term.

Topics: Tablets, Laptops, Mobility

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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