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Should we still be taking the tablets?

With tablets showing signs of declining demand Billy MacInnes wonders just what the future holds for the hardware

Everyone knows that the tablet market has been having a tough time. According to the most recent figures from IDC, shipments in 2016 were down 15.6% from 2015. IDC reported that tablet shipments had declined for nine quarters in a row.

Ryan Reith, programme vice president with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers, said: “Sentiment around the tablet market continues to grow stale despite a lot of talk about vendors pivoting their product portfolios toward the detachable segment”. Tablets without a dedicated keyboard were “continuing to lose relevancy across all regions”, he added, “and, as a result, we see the decline happening globally”.

A lot of hope has been pinned on the rise of detachable tablets from Microsoft and Apple as a source for future growth in the tablet market. IDC reported that they had struggled to maintain momentum in the fourth quarter but believed there was better to come.

Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers, said the market “continues to warm up to two-in-one devices” but there had been a dampening in the growth of detachable tablets as the price and performance disparity between detachables and convertibles started to narrow. But he added the slowdown was likely "to be temporary”.

Apple is still the dominant player with almost a quarter of the tablet market and Samsung is in second place with 15% but both experienced shipment declines. IDC’s figures were reinforced by Apple’s results for fiscal Q1 2017 (for the period ending 31 December 2016) which reported a 22% decline in iPad revenues. While Apple has a strong grip on the overall tablet market, the iPad Pro still accounts for only a small part of its overall sales with IDC calculating that it made up a tenth of iPad shipments.

Separate research from Strategy Analytics argued that price was a major issue for consumers when it came to adopting detachables such as the iPad Pro or Surface Pro.

Eric Smith, senior analyst, Tablet & Touchscreen Strategies service, said that while “2-in-1 tablets were “a hot market segment” price was “a key factor in consumer behaviours around PC and tablet replacement devices, which is evident in lower shipments of iPad Pro and Surface Pro 4 devices in the quarter”.

But Apple CEO Tim Cook remains bullish in the face of declining iPad sales. “We’ve got some exciting things coming on iPad and I’m optimistic about where things are headed,” he said at the company’s earnings call. “I see a lot of good things and hope for better results.”

Both IDC and Strategic Analytics reported that the big climbers in the tablet market were Lenovo and Huawei.

The continuous decline in sales of tablets suggests that, despite the prophesies in the heady days after the iPad’s emergence, they are not going to replace laptops or PCs anytime soon. Detachables may be better suited to the role of laptop replacement although their price tag may well deter some customers from making the switch.

As for ‘traditional’ tablets, they may have reached their saturation point. It could well be that, as with PCs and laptops, they will also evolve their own replacement cycle. It’s worth noting that the impetus to replace tablets is much weaker than for smartphones. Unlike phones, for example, they are much more likely to be shared by family members in a household. So there is no need for everyone in a family to have their own tablet.

It’s also worth noting that smartphones, especially larger models, have cannibalised aspects of the usage case for tablets because people can do much of what they used to do on an iPad or Galaxy tablet on an iPhone or Galaxy smartphone.

Ironically, just as the sceptics asked at the launch of the iPad in 2010, the big question going forward could well be: What do I need a tablet for?

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