The tablet as we know it is reaching paralysis, and here's why

The tablet as we know it is reaching paralysis, and here's why

You've been reading it everywhere - tablet sales are plummeting. The first quarter of 2015 is the second consecutive quarter in which tablet shipments are falling. To be more specific, analyst powerhouse IDC says shipments fell to 47.1 million in Q1, which is a 5.9% decline from the same quarter a year ago. Even Apple, the tablet's years-long stronghold, is feeling the recession. According to its Q2 2015 earnings report, Apple sold 21.4 million iPads throughout the period — a sobering 21 percent drop from the same time one year ago.

The drought from 2015 follows a slowdown from the last quarter of 2014, which saw 76.1 million tablets shipped worldwide, compared to 76.9 million from Q4 2013. This may not seem overly dramatic, but considering that up till last year, tablets were on a solid year over year growth streak and also the fastest-growing category of consumer devices ever invented, the tablet market is, indeed, in poor shape. This is a full six months of falling sales. While the market was escalating in double digit percentages on a yearly basis, it looks like that pace was ultimately unsustainable.

How did we get to this? It's nothing overly complicated, really. Reality itself is all there's to it!

A moment of change.

A moment of change.

The market is saturated


The original iPad's arrival in 2010 defined the modern tablet and created the market for it. That's quite the accomplishment, but mind you, we're not saying that the iPad is the "first" tablet that it certainly wasn't. But it was the first of its kind that gave users exactly what they, knowingly or not, wanted - light, portable, app-based computing & media on a big touchscreen.

After Apple's historical keynote (Jan 27 2010), Android device vendors knew they had their work cut out for them. The fruits of their labor came promptly, mere months later, but the first generation Android tablets were quite expensive, yet not convincing in their design and performance characteristics. Android lacked the polish of iOS, and with some exceptions, Apple was privileged to the best technological components at the time. Fair and square, but just a year later, competition in the Android tablet market had blown up huge! Because people demand tablets, and because Android is free, there was an abundance of screen size and price choices to consider from all kinds of leading and low-brow brands.

Speaking of price, Amazon played a key role in pushing the Android tablet into the spotlight (especially in America) by launching the $199 Kindle Fire. After October 2011, a tablet of good quality was no longer a luxury expense priced upwards of $400, but rather a $199 device you order from Amazon. Obviously, the competition had to react - it reacted predictably by targeting lower prices, and the ensuing race to the bottom made a sheer variety of Android tablets available at price tags that eventually slipped below $100. If you aren't a power user, and the overwhelming majority of users aren't, even these can be quite decent these days. Same goes for Windows tablets. Nowadays, Windows is free for devices with screen sizes below 9 inches, and Intel is subsidizing their manufacturing expenses, so buying a dirt-cheap Windows 8.1 tab is also an option.

The HP Stream 7 is a $99 tablet that runs the same OS as your laptop. Kind of.

The HP Stream 7 is a $99 tablet that runs the same OS as your laptop. Kind of.



The point of this succinct history lesson is that, over the last couple of years, most users who wanted a tablet, be it from Apple or device vendor X, have already gotten one for themselves, and perhaps even one for their friend, relative, pet, or fiance if they wanted to. The result is a bunch of happy customers representing a market densely saturated with users who already have a tab, are fine with it, and couldn't care less about the new devices on the shelves. That last bit alone is worthy of a closer examination, which we'll do in the coming paragraphs.

Carrier support is weak


Most users, especially those in America and other countries where carriers heavily subside smartphones, don't shop for unlocked smartphones - especially if it's expensive $600+ flagships we're talking about. They sign a two year contract, enjoy their device, and when the deal's up or beginning to expire, most of them feel genuine interest in upgrading to that hot new gadget. Hence, smartphone sales are guaranteed more stability.

A tablet in its natural habitat. Would you like a data plan with that?

A tablet in its natural habitat. Would you like a data plan with that?

Tablets, though, are a different story. You are well aware that carriers sell smartphones (at cost) because they are selling their service alongside them. To sell and subsidize tablets, carriers also have to sell data plans for cellular tabs, likewise. But the trouble is, not that many people buy cellular tablets. The reasons? They are significantly more expensive, tablets are generally perceived as household devices (where Wi-Fi and family sharing thrives), and oh, what do you know - most tablet owners are already paying for a smartphone and data plan, so they don't feel like servicing another device. While we're at it, there's plenty of free Wi-Fi outdoors, and smartphone tethering works like a charm, anyway.

If you are marketing tablets for a living, we'd imagine you are quite frustrated. Alas, there's more where that came from...

Lack of innovation


With a few exceptions, tablet announcements from the past two years have been a giant snoozefest. All the iPad has had going on for itself is becoming progressively thinner, along with the usual yearly performance boost. But save for speed, the prettier screen, and the ability to run complex 3D games, there's hardly anything the iPad Air 2 can do for you that even the ancient iPad 2 can't. Both have the same core functionality. That's about to change with iOS 9, though, as the iPad Air 2's ample 2GB of RAM will allow it to pull off some heroic multitasking. But that's about it. Be assured, many will keep holding on to their older iPads and iPad Minis, because they are content with them and cannot justify the upgrade toll.

Android & Windows tablets are stuck in a bigger rut. The lower you go down the price ladder, the deeper you venture into a wormhole of anonymous slates. Most of them seem like afterthoughts of a manufacturer who's merely exercising its tablet-making muscles to prevent atrophy and keep up with the guys. Meanwhile, high-end Android tablets suffer from the same problem as the iPad - they can't excite users and initiate upgrades. If the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet was an impeccably designed, waterproof, specs-intense tablet from 2014, then the new Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet is the exact same product, only from 2015.

Is Lenovo the only one who's even trying?

Is Lenovo the only one who's even trying?

Same goes for the freshly announced, and openly iPad-like Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 duo - without a doubt, Sammy's new tablets are better engineered than their last year Galaxy Tab S counterparts, but we cannot identify upgrade-worthy user experience improvements. In fact, some of our readers are arguing whether holding up for the inevitable Galaxy Tab S discount isn't a smarter move than buying the brand new tablet. Software seems to be the missing link in the yearly upgrade cycle that nobody seems to talk about. Instead, brands like Lenovo are throwing in pico projectors and touchscreens that sense input from cutlery. Business people probably like projectors, but mass users can't be bothered - they've already got big LED TVs.


Moreover, the price differences between low, mid, and high-end tablets are now bigger than the usability differences between them, which makes for a rather poor positioning of premium tablets on today's market.

Slow replacement cycles


Initially, device makers expected users to upgrade tablets like their smartphones, every two to three years on average. Only it turned out that wasn't the case, for a variety of reasons that even a trained astrologist would have had a hard time predicting. We profiled the lack of innovation already – a major contributing factor to slow upgrade cycles. But there's more to it than just that. Generally, tablets are pampered household items. They don't go through the daily grind of living in your pocket, on your desk, and in your car quite like smartphones do. And when you do take a tablet outside, you're usually carrying it in a hard cover case - suitable for a tablet, mostly inconvenient for a smartphone.

Tablets' large batteries, coupled with the moderate daily use, don't go through as many charge cycles as phone batteries do, hence they last quite a bit longer. Meanwhile, bigger vendors such as Apple and Samsung do a really good job keeping their aging devices current with software updates. In the end, if you are the typical user, then the tablet you bought years ago is still good enough for you. Either that, or you've moved onto your phablet!

This is the Android tablet.

This is the Android tablet.

Phablets are filling in for tablets


Let's not forget the big elephant in the room - phablets! Following the Samsung Galaxy Note's introduction, the phablet has seen nothing short of tremendous success. Each year, more and more devices with screens at and above 5.5 inches per diagonal are contributing to cumbersome rectangular bulges in users' pockets. A study by analytics firm Flurry found that 20% of the 1.6 billion devices it tracks in 2015 are phablets, while this percentage was 6% just a year ago. More evidence? A Forrester Research survey discovered that 41% of global information workers are using a smartphone with a screen larger than 5-inches. 11% of those surveyed told Forrester that their primary tablet is actually a phablet. Heed these words, for we'll return to them later.

Needless to say, somebody has to move away to make room for that kind of phablet growth, and that somebody is the good old tablet - especially where Android is concerned. According to the same data, phablets account for 27% of all Android devices, while tablets powered by the robot Google built have a whopping 3% user base. Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us at the staggering conclusion that users looking for a big-screen Android device are buying phablets, not tablets. Why is that? Well, for starts, phablets are treated by carriers no different than smartphones, which means they are guaranteed to sell better, even if they too aren't exactly treated to the kind of spectacular innovation that moves people into "shut up and take my money" mode.

When there's Android, there's iOS too, so how is the long-in-the-coming introduction of the bigger-screened iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus impacting Apple's iPad sales? Well, a study by the makers of Pocket shows that the surveyed people who own both the iPhone 6 Plus and an iPad reach to the former for their multimedia consumption 80% of the time. That's probably because reaching for the big-screen iPhone in your pocket is so darn convenient. To those 80%, their phablet has become their tablet for all but the most niche intents and purposes. And that's bad news for iPad salesmen.


Conclusion


Starry-eyed journalists and analysts who enthusiastically proclaimed tablets as "laptop killers" have been forced to realize the obvious truth that they have clumsily evaded since the beginning - tablets are primarily multimedia consumption devices with limited productivity options. During the time they've been on the market, nobody that I know of has thrown out their laptop, or kept showing up to work with just a tablet and keyboard dock for longer than a few weeks, before quitting in frustration. There goes the "laptop killer".

That's not to say tablets aren't great. They are, but they are in a difficult spot right now, because people aren't buying them like they used to, and manufacturers are uncertain. But there is light at the end of the tunnel - business users. Tablets make for excellent enterprise devices due to their connectivity and portability strengths. No wonder Lenovo is adding projectors, or that Apple is reportedly putting the iPad Air and Mini on the back burner this year to give the spotlight to the iPad Pro.


Moreover, IDC claims that growth in the 2-in-1 device space, occupied by the likes of Microsoft's Surface Pro or Lenovo's Yoga convertible laptops, has been "stunning", despite hybrids accounting for a relatively small market share. They represent good value to those looking to replace their laptop or aren't completely sold on the virtues of a regular tablet. Which makes it clear that the tablet as we know it has ran out of steam, and needs to evolve, adapt, or become something altogether new to sustain itself.

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47 Comments

1. Ruturaj

Posts: 1484; Member since: Oct 16, 2014

Too costly and also better options like surface pro.

8. bucky

Posts: 3774; Member since: Sep 30, 2009

the surface pro is a pretty inconvenient tablet compared to the ipad and various android tablets. Powerful and in many ways innovative, yes. Would i take it over my tablet, no. Its trickier to comfortably use as a tablet and it cant sit comfortably on my lap as a laptop.

10. Ruturaj

Posts: 1484; Member since: Oct 16, 2014

Yep that's true too, but it's a option and some are going for it.

34. Jango

Posts: 372; Member since: Oct 24, 2014

This article is behind. I predicted this a long time ago.

25. MrElectrifyer

Posts: 3960; Member since: Oct 21, 2014

"Its trickier to comfortably use as a tablet and it cant sit comfortably on my lap as a laptop." Have to disagree as a 2+ years user. It's more convenient and practical as a Tablet than the toyPad, which is just a blown up iPod touch. Unlike the toyPad, it actually offers the full benefits of the Tablet form-factor with a wide range uses of it's Wacom-Cintiq-level (bit.ly/1AWZ58u) digitizer pen, not just the consumption benefit. For the consumption benefit, it actually does it better overall (besides for the camera, which sucks ass, period). With full support for a wide range of media formats, be it locally or on the web, and wide range of steam games that aren't infected by the nonsense IAP plague that just ruins the fun. Switched from a 13" HP Pavilion dv3510nr Laptop to the Surface Pro, and it's no less comfortable to use on my 5" lap, nor does it slow down my accurate 50 wpm typing. One advantage it brings with it is zero heat worries on my lap when doing some intense computing tasks.

35. devonblue4u

Posts: 68; Member since: Apr 12, 2011

I agree on the Windows solution over a tablet, but I have the original Yoga 13. As another 2+ year user and an owner of a Sammy Tab 3 8", I can say I've relegated the Tab 3 to car use only. Velcro-ed to the dash, it makes sense as a navigation screen over a phone. And it's easy to cruise the web on 8" as apposed to 5.5" screen on the LG G3 while on the road. Everything else at home is handled by Windows 8.1, not android or iOS. Converting the Yoga from laptop, tent or tablet mode is 2 more modes a regular tablet cannot perform, and icing on the cake.

14. guest

Posts: 370; Member since: Jun 13, 2012

Exactly many people are finding out that they need full windows and the half ass iPad just doesn't cut. My friends wife came to me and asked which basic computer she could get because her iPad can't do basic things like save files for her hobby.

22. bucky

Posts: 3774; Member since: Sep 30, 2009

just in case you didnt know, the ipad can save any files. You just have to remember that its app based. you can send yourself any office files, pdf's etc. and just make sure you have the appropriate application installed on your ipad. I never recommend a basic computer for anything as it will be so slow in very little time that it wont be usable. Either buy a proper laptop or dont buy one at all.

23. medicci37

Posts: 1361; Member since: Nov 19, 2011

Lol I don't think the surface pro has anything to do with weak tablet sales. It's not exactly in high demand & it's one of the more expensive tabs

33. joey_sfb

Posts: 6794; Member since: Mar 29, 2012

I have heard some negative feedback from colleague that uses Surface pro. They are used to their older Fujitsu Windows Tablet. The main complaint is the fixed viewing angle while their Fujitsu Tablet allow the adjustment of viewing angle and rotation of screen. Its easily to share the screen during a one to one presentation with rotational screen.

26. Mimas

Posts: 22; Member since: Mar 29, 2013

How can they be too costly but a better option be the hideously more expensive surface pro?

45. Shocky unregistered

Surface Pro is quite expensive if you're looking at the latest models. MIcrosoft's app store is still far behind Google Play and Apples App Store. Whenever using a Windows Tablet I still use it in desktop mode and download and install applications from there as I would on a PC, the metro screen is useless and the application list is a mess.

50. Plutonium239

Posts: 1154; Member since: Mar 17, 2015

The Surface 3 isn't too pricey. I spent $808 in total on mine, bought the 128gb version with they keyboard, surface pen and arc touch Bluetooth mouse(which is very nice and well worth the money). I have not yet used the surface 3 in tablet mode, but I plan on it for taking notes when I return to work after my broken leg heals up. I bought it because I was not supposed to sit with my leg down for extended periods of time and so I could not easily use my desktop. It is more than adequate for anything I have thrown at it. It even runs Fallout 3 and New Vegas at higher settings that my desktop(with no lag), it is very nice with an xbox 360 controller attached via usb. The display on the surface 3 looks very good.

2. dimas

Posts: 3296; Member since: Jul 22, 2014

I remember a coworker said that tablets will kill laptop production and will take over the cubicles of every working environment. Now I'm only using my tablet for reading pdfs. I even hardly play on it because android freemium games tend to become boring overtime.

3. theguy2345

Posts: 1216; Member since: Jun 24, 2014

Phablets are taking the place of tablets. Most of these tablets are just big phones anyway. Now phones get bigger, less space for tablets. And people seem to keep tablets much longer than they do phones. And the only tablet that is not slowing down is Surface. As much as people try to make it out as not a tablet, it is. It's a slate. It doesn't have a keyboard attached to it at all times. It defies the trend because it is more than just a big phone. Even on my $80 HP stream 7, I can do more than I have ever done on my $300 Ipad mini.

40. jojon

Posts: 426; Member since: Feb 11, 2014

great post

4. MisterQ

Posts: 61; Member since: Feb 13, 2015

Actually Windows tablet sales , especially the Surface line is increasing. It's only iOS and Android that are slowing down which makes sense - innovation is lacking at iOS and Android is still horrible on a tablet. Surface is a marvelous product, can't stress this enough

28. Plutonium239

Posts: 1154; Member since: Mar 17, 2015

My Surface 3 is both more beautiful and functional than any android tablet or ipad, or a macbook for that matter(macbooks do not have a touch screen, but the other disadvantage being OSX could be countered by installing windows on it to make it more functional, lol).

6. Joshing4fun

Posts: 1244; Member since: Aug 13, 2010

Tablets have always been stupid. I never understood them. They're just giant phones that are usually WiFi only. They're expensive can do nothing my Nexus 5 cannot.

37. MrElectrifyer

Posts: 3960; Member since: Oct 21, 2014

I know what you intend to say, and I agree, but you're not actually referring to all tablets when you say that, you're just referring to bastardized tablets...the Surface is an example of a non-bastardized tablet, offering the full benefits of the Tablet PC form-factor.

42. Fellwalker

Posts: 521; Member since: Apr 04, 2014

Except last a full day. I too have a nexus 5, and use it for browsing, kindle, maps, apps. It has a battery that is too small to use all the time. I do gaming on my tab s 8.4 as a few minutes drains the nexus 5 to needing a recharge. I have had to remove apps from my nexus 5 as it has far too little memory. I cannot use it for music or podcasts. I have found 7 or 8 inches is ideal for the likes of this - reading phonearena and commenting. But I do need both as the tablet is a little unwieldy to carry EVERYWHERE. I had two previous nexus 7s; the 2012 was too slow after a year, the 2013 was dropped. I really wanted an 8 inch galaxy note, but the tablet was utterly outdated by then, and seems to have dropped off the radar now. The tab s 8.4 has a pathetic 16GB but it does have an sd card slot, and even a year on is plenty fast enough. There is no way I could carry a surface pro around with me and use it one handed to read whilst walking 20 minutes down to town. I did use my phone for that on Tuesday, and the battery gave up and went into low power mode so I could not do so for the return walk. A tablet is small enough to sit in a patch pocket so is truly portable. Because of that it is my preferred choice for any activity.

46. Shocky unregistered

They are not just giant phones, due to size they perform better due to less throttling and often have SoC's that wouldn't work in a phone due to power and heat. When apps are properly optimized for larger displays they provide a better experience. Sure I can do almost everything on my Galaxy S6 that a can on my tablet but when at home I still reach for my Shield Tablet and not my phone.

7. skymitch89

Posts: 1451; Member since: Nov 05, 2010

Just my thought, but I believe that iOS & Android tablet sales are declining because there are soo many of them out there, and the people that want(ed) one have already gotten it. Now for Windows tablets, people are probably switching over to those because they have to portability of a tablet, but functionality of a laptop or pc. That is kind of why when I go to replace my laptop I'll be looking at getting either a Surface or HP Split x2 or something similar.

16. Bleached

Posts: 2; Member since: Jul 22, 2015

Exactly, the Surface is a laptop replacement, not really a tablet. I have one and it is a great laptop. It sucks as a tablet though. Little things like changing settings or Wifi are a huge pain. All the apps in the store are basically junk. It quickly reminds you what makes iOS and Android great when you try to use it as a tablet.

9. Kary1

Posts: 300; Member since: Jun 26, 2015

When I bought my first tablet I thought I'd quickly want a second, so that my wife and I could both use them at the same time. But it turns out it was more of a fad. I hardly use my tablet and my wife's main use of it is the Kindle app. Also, carrier support? If I do take the tablet outside the house or work (where wifi is available) I would just tether it to my phone. I wouldn't pay for a separate device.

13. hortizano

Posts: 294; Member since: May 22, 2013

So Android is the culprit? If only, and only Apple manufactured them, they would be soaring at the $499 mark and above? And highly praised and desired? Everything has its moment, and these ones are not like essential for living or progress, like lets say car tires (that even on a saturated market still need to be sold due to the ever increasing number of cars and the inability of them to fly yet), so people will learn to live without them and wait for the next gadget in trend... c'est la vie... consumism vie...

19. Kary1

Posts: 300; Member since: Jun 26, 2015

Your first three sentences are probably correct. But for Android, Apple would probably be making a lot more money selling tablets. More tablets at a higher price. It wouldn't be anywhere near what is being sold today total, but Apple would be much better off.

21. wildfiregt

Posts: 179; Member since: Jun 10, 2013

You finally figured out that tablet and especially the iPad are just bigger phones. They're far from beign a mobile computer and even they cost more than a PC. For instance ,some Asus laptops are touchscreen with removable keyboard. For me they represent the best from both worlds

24. downphoenix

Posts: 3165; Member since: Jun 19, 2010

It seems the manufacturers have this figured out already, that is why the solid midrange tablets are all but gone. It seems only the low end or high end tablets are being made anymore, goodbye to any good midrangers like the Nexus 7.

27. exran

Posts: 61; Member since: May 02, 2015

"we're not saying that the iPad is the "first" tablet that it certainly wasn't. But it was the first of its kind that gave users exactly what they, knowingly or not, wanted" wtf is this? Apple knows what I want, even if I don't? I don't use a phablet to replace a tablet. I don't use tablets for simply media consumption and switch to a computer for more complex activities. I want to see a device that succeeds the laptop: it is portable and powerful, and comes in a desktop experience with a screen bigger than my phone and a keyboard. I want to see devices like the Surface Pro or Lenovo's Yoga tablets or Asus Transformers. Those are the future of tablets and laptops: merger.

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