2016: The year of the tablet

July 12, 2012: 2:45 PM ET

Tablets are on the verge of displacing typical PC and notebook sales. And that will make for a consumer electronics industry that is configured very differently.

By Peter Suciu, contributor

FORTUNE -- Shipments of tablet computers will surpass notebook shipments in 2016, but overall mobile PC shipments will see strong growth by 2017. According to the latest NPD DisplaySearch Quarterly Mobile PC Shipment and Forecast Report, mobile PC shipments will grow from 347 million units in 2012 to more than 809 million by 2017.

Driving this growth will be tablet PCs, such as Apple's (AAPL) iPad, but this doesn't mean that traditional notebooks will be slammed shut. These are also expected to see growth in the same period. NPD's forecast predicts that traditional notebooks will actually increase from 208 million in 2012 to 393 million by 2017, while tablet devices will increase from 121 million to 416 million. A key driver for this is adoption in mature markets, including North American, Western Europe and Japan. "The notebook market is very healthy, and our forecast shows double-digit growth," said Richard Shim, senior analyst at NPD Group. "What is also driving tablet adoption is that there are more players getting in to the market."

Despite some claims that tablets will replace notebooks this does not appear to be the course at present. "By no means do we see that notebooks are dead," Shim says. "The notebook market continues to grow because the platform is becoming less expensive." The growth of tablets, and even the outpacing of traditional notebooks, will continue as these remain a second device rather than a fully fledged replacement of the latter. "The post-PC era is really PC plus," said Sarah Rotman Epps, senior analyst for Forrester Research. "Tablets and smartphones are additives devices."

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These devices are also coming from additional sources beyond the traditional computer manufacturers. Forrester had predicted earlier this that the U.S. consumer tablet market is growing faster than previously forecast, in large part as Amazon (AMZN) and Barnes & Noble (BN) expand the addressable market for these devices.

The other factor that is worth considering is that tablets are surpassing notebooks, only when PC tablets are factored in. "The tablet market is in its infancy, and it could go in many different directions," emphasized Rhoda Alexander, senior manager for monitors and tablets at IHS iSuppli. "The numbers however are all over the map with what people are saying."

In fact, the numbers from IHS iSuppli differ from those of NPD and Forrester. IHS iSuppli forecasts 311 million media tablets to be sold in 2016 along with 49 million PC tablets, while the notebook market will hold steady at 322 million including tablet and non-tablet PC notebooks. This of course only creates more confusion -- as some tablets are notebooks, but obviously not all notebooks are tablets. "The distinction that we see is that a media tablets run on the ARM processor and feature a mobile operating system," explained Alexander, "where as the PC tablets still feature an X86 processor and full desktop OS."

Microsoft (MSFT) is hedging its bets in this regard, with Windows 8 for the PC tablet and notebooks market, and the Windows RT operating system for the media tablets. "Corporate and enterprise customers need the legacy support that Windows 8 will provide," added Alexander. "This has been a hardship Microsoft has faced, as Apple and other companies have been able to work with faster and more dynamic OS for the mobile platforms. But they make no hesitations about being legacy free. That has allowed them to innovate more quickly."

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The platforms will be different but offer similar computing experiences -- with some limitations. "Windows 8 is the fully fledged OS and it is your all around performance platform, and it will do everything you expect a computer to do," said Shim. "Whereas Windows RT and other tablet like OS will continue to be geared towards convenience based experience. These can turn on instantly, last all day and be an extreme mobile platform."

By 2016 the two could also move closer towards each other. The tablet is going to be influenced by the notebook. This means multiple processors, higher resolution and even the adoption of a keyboard interface, Shim says. Microsoft is bringing out two new operating systems with Windows 8 and Windows RT, this will increase sales of notebooks and tablets respectively. "Every time there is a new OS that will spur sales," said Epps. "Will Windows 8 renew consumer interest, but that's a different question. The bigger question is Windows 8 a PC or a post-PC device. But does it matter?"

Likely only to those hoping to sell lots of computers.

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