Six years ago, Steve Jobs spoke at the D8 conference proclaiming that the PC was on the way out and the recently launched iPad was going to drive the “post-PC era” of computing. Jobs’ prediction about PCs was on the money, but figures now show that tablets, rather than replacing PCs, seem to be joining them on the digital scrap heap.
When Jobs unveiled the original iPad, he called it “a magical and revolutionary device,” and the late Apple co-founder was right about its appeal, in a sense. “Tablets have enjoyed healthy growth in recent years; since 2011, the numbers getting online via these devices have more than trebled — jumping from just 10 percent at the start of the decade to more than 1 in 3 in 2016,” GlobalWebIndex’s Katie Young wrote in a blog post.
However, those figures mask a more worrying trend for tablet manufacturers.
“For most online activities, tablet users are more likely to use a mobile than a tablet,” the report’s authors said. “Mobiles are also the clear favorite for second-screen activities — well over half of digital consumers use a mobile while watching TV.”
Most people scoffed when former BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins declared in 2013 that the tablet would be dead in five years. Fast forward just two years and his prediction doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous. For the first time ever, tablet sales declined year over year during the fourth quarter, according to IDC. In other words, consumers ignored slates during the critical holiday season in favor of other types of gadgets, like fitness trackers, Chromebooks and drones.
IDC reports that for the first quarter of 2016, overall worldwide tablet shipments fell to 39.6 million, a 14.7 percent drop from the same period a year ago, However the only part of the segment which did okay were tablets with keyboards – or as we call them, hybrids.
The decline of ordinary tablets was partly due to traditional first-quarter slumps but also a complete lack of interest on the part of customers.
Cannibalised by large screen smartphones
The shift away from tablets can be in part explained by the ever growing rate of smartphone adoption, and with the introduction of larger devices, now known as the phablet, (something Steve Jobs ditched as a failed product) it seems that many users are more than happy binging on Netflix via their plus-sized mobiles. The first Samsung Galaxy had a 5.3 inch display, meaning that what was considered at the time to be a phablet is now an average sized mobile device. So big phones have become a norm and are often seen as a deterrent for anyone considering the purchase of a tablet – it’s just easier to deal with one device instead of two.
With an estimated 50% of Android tablets shipped last year featuring a 7inch display, the threat of larger screen smartphones is a clear factor in the decline of tablet sales.
If we take a closer look at the market, it becomes clear that tablets are now a commodity. With perfectly adequate tablets now available for less than £100, little to no differentiation between devices and a saturated market, it’s becoming increasingly harder for companies to make a profit on them.
With the introduction of the iPad, nobody was sure how often users would want to upgrade their tablets – would the pattern be closer to a smartphone or an elongated cycle, more reminiscent of laptop usage cycles?
Now we seem to have a better understanding of this industry, as identified by Apple’s own Tim Cook, the usage cycle of iPads is ‘longer than an iPhone, probably between an iPhone and a PC.’ Chances are, you have a tablet at home and you mainly use it for browsing the internet, watching Netflix or some light reading during family time. Tablets have become a shared family device, with relatively light usage and software upgrades keeping the devices current, the need to replace them is declining.
Laptops are a tougher rival than predicted
With the rapid success of the iPad and subsequent Android tablets flooding the market, many pointed to the upcoming demise of laptops. However, the industry didn’t anticipate the rise in smartphone screen size, which in turn has resulted in tablets looking more like a luxury device and making laptops hard to resist.
Google’s recent introduction of its Chromebook range and new lower price point for entry level notebook devices have hurt tablet sales across established Western markets, with consumers opting to replace their laptops rather than investing in a luxury tablet which doesn’t even do all the things their shiny smartphone can.
So where’s the innovation or the way forward?
When looking at all the tablet devices available on the market, it’s hard not to notice the iterative approach in their improvements on previous models. New tablets genuinely lack exciting and innovative features, which in turn are a significant upgrade factor, especially visible in the early adopter groups.
On the other hand, what’s left to introduce? Larger screen resolutions; haptic feedback; personalised tablets aimed at specific demographics such as children or gamers? There is no clear upgrade direction within this market, which can easily change with the introduction of interconnected homes or perhaps a shift from the current consumer focus to target schools and businesses with tablet devices.
It is becoming clear that tablets are facing a tough time, however they can still make a comeback if companies analyse the usage patterns closely and address the current market’s needs. Tablets need to clearly differentiate from both smartphones and laptops, providing users with a distinctive, personalised experience. That said, if nothing changes, tablets will be further cannibalised by the increasing rate of smartphone adoption and forever sit on the shelf next to other luxury goods.
I have never been a supporter of tablets and have always seen them as a luxury device. Afterall, why would you need a tablet? It’s not as productive as a PC and not as convenient as a phone. It never had the mass appeal, just like smartwatches, it’s a niche device and with the onslaught of hybrids such as Microsoft’s Surface and Lenovo’s Yoga Book, the future of the touchscreen tablet looks questionable.
What are your opinions? Are tablets as we know them doomed? I can imagine hybrids replacing laptops and tablets but I can’t see a future with devices that are just larger smartphones without the phone features.