Shipments of tablet PCs, such as Apple's iPad, will surpass notebook shipments in 2016, according to US-based research company NPD DisplaySearch.
This is not bad news for the notebook PC industry: NPD expects notebook PC shipments to grow from 208 million units in 2012 to 393 million units in 2017. However, it expects tablet PC shipments to grow from 121 million to 416 million units in the same period, with a compound annual growth rate of 28 percent. At that point, notebooks will have only 49 percent of the mobile computer market
Faster growth reflects the fact that tablets represent a new market. In the developed countries, most people who want a notebook PC already have one, so this is largely a replacement market. However, most people who want a tablet don't have one, so there is a much bigger untapped market. In addition, tablets -- especially Android tablets -- are generally cheaper than notebooks, and probably have a shorter replacement cycle. (It remains to be seen what happens when the tablet market is saturated.)
NPD's Quarterly Mobile PC Shipment and Forecast Report predicts that tablet PC sales in mature markets, including North America, Japan and Western Europe, "will account for 66 percent of shipments in 2012 and remain in the 60 percent range throughout the forecast period. Tablet PC shipments into mature markets will grow from 80 million units in 2012 to 254 million units by 2017."
In a statement, NPD DisplaySearch analyst Richard Shim said: "While the lines between tablet and notebook PCs are blurring, we expect mature markets to be the primary regions for tablet PC adoption. New entrants are tending to launch their initial products in mature markets. Services and infrastructure needed to create compelling new usage models are often better established in mature markets."
As part of the "blurring", laptop PCs (usually classified as running Microsoft Windows or Apple's Mac OS X) will become much more like tablets over the next five years, as is shown by the appearance of Intel Ultrabooks and similar machines, Microsoft's Surface and other tablets running Windows 8. These are usually thinner and lighter than traditional laptops, may have touch screens, have long battery life, and resume very quickly from Sleep mode. (The ARM version of Windows 8 includes an "always on, always connected" mode intended to work like a smartphone.)
Meanwhile, tablet PCs are expected to get more powerful processors and probably more powerful applications.
NPD's bar chart, below, shows limited prospects for what it calls "Mini note PCs" and the rest of us call netbooks. However, these should retain some appeal as small, light systems with long battery lives because they sell for a fraction of the price of Ultrabooks.