Duncan Stewart

2011 will be the year of the tablet (but don't say goodbye to your laptop)

Special to The Globe and Mail

Attendees use tablets at the NBC Universal display at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show January 6, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world's largest annual consumer technology tradeshow, officially runs from January 6-9. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Just how many mobile computers do you need?

I didn't say "personal computers." We will assume that you are a normal person and a laptop or two suffices. (Please don't ask why I have six laptops). But if we instead define a computer as a device that computes - that we use to do computing-type things such as e-mails, web browsing, gaming, word processing and spreadsheets - then many Canadians are about to start carrying three different portable computers: laptops, tablets and smartphones.

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Canadians buy about 6 million PCs a year, more than half of which are laptops. In 2011, we will buy about the same number of smartphones and tablets combined. So although laptops have a larger installed base - there are probably around 10 million laptops in Canada - smartphones and tablets are catching up fast.

Some still dismiss tablets as faddish and overpriced toys. They may be right for themselves: chacun à son goût applies to computers as easily as anything else. But they are going to be utterly wrong about the rest of Canada (and the world). Tablet sales look to rise 400-500 per cent this year, across various sizes and manufacturers, and many large companies are going to be buying their employees tablets: at Deloitte we are predicting that 25 per cent of 2011 tablet sales will be to enterprises and government.

With tablets becoming so successful, the inevitable question is "Can I get rid of my laptop or smartphone?"

We are already a nation with overworked chiropractors and exploding purses due to the growth in the various devices we have to carry, and everyone agrees that going from two "must carry" gadgets to three would be a step in the wrong direction.

Surveys show that consumers say they don't want to pay for or carry another device. For 20 years, we have heard that they want fewer gadgets, not more. However, despite that stated preference, Canadians have gone out and bought and carried millions more devices. In other words, just like losing weight and exercising more, what we say we want and what we actually do are completely disconnected.

That doesn't mean the desire to keep device bloat under control isn't still around. When TechCrunch reported on our Deloitte Prediction on this subject their headline was "Get rid of your laptop." The fact that our research said the exact opposite was irrelevant: it was one of TechCrunch's most read and commented on articles for the next two days! So what does Deloitte really think?

Technologies like virtualization and cloud computing are making smartphones and tablets far better laptop substitutes than anyone would have guessed even three years ago. But they have small (or no) keyboards and small screens. They have much less on-board storage and are about 90 per cent less powerful than even the cheapest non-netbook PCs.

If you need to write more than 500 words, do a lot on a spreadsheet, want some serious graphics processing for a game or video editing or have a work program that needs a faster processor, your laptop isn't going away. You may not need it as often, you may not take it on every trip, but I suspect that 95 per cent of Canadians that have a laptop today will still have one in five years.

What about our smartphones? Even leaving aside the (legitimate but clichéd) point about a tablet being too big to hold up to your ear, the sheer convenience of a smartphone in terms of voice and portability will keep them in our lives. Yes, you could make voice calls on a tablet with a headset, but it will not be elegant or always easy to use. And no tablet - whether 7" or 9.7" - will ever match a smartphones that is 75 per cent smaller and lighter. Tablets may be more portable than laptops - but no one can put them in a pocket or clip them to a belt. 99 per cent of all Canadians who have a smartphone today will still have one in five years.

Finally, tablets do offer a great compromise between the two. We won't all buy one this year, but the numbers are growing and growing fast. We will probably see 50 per cent penetration by 2015.

So while a few Canadians will have zero, one or only two of these devices, that won't be most of us. Owning three computer form factor devices will be normal… if heavy.

Good thing we are about to get rid of our wallets. Which is the topic of the next column.

Duncan Stewart is the Director of Deloitte Canada Research in the areas of Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT), Life Sciences and GreenTech.