Articles - 22nd January 2019

2018 was another year that saw tablet sales fall – is it time for the Return of the Laptop?

Words by Matthew Mason

Tablets arrived on the scene around 2010 with the launch of the first iPad. The new arrival soon challenged the traditional giants of the portable tech world: laptops. For a while, it seemed that tablets were going to be the natural successor to laptops and complement the emerging smartphone market. We were all going mobile with smaller, portable devices becoming the norm. But things have changed. The last quarter of 2018 saw fewer sales in the tablet market. Shockingly, it’s the 16th consecutive quarter this has happened.

The Reasons for Tablet Success

There are several reasons why tablets were successful in the early days. The smartphone had been around since the 1990s, but they entered common use with more powerful features towards the end of the last decade.

However, consumers wanted something with more power than a smartphone while maintaining portability. Laptops could not fulfil this role. They were large and heavy with a battery life of around 2-3 hours. They were prone to overheating for multimedia applications. In comparison, tablets could boast a battery life of at least double that, sometimes even longer, and could run powerful applications such as business software and games.

Essentially, tablets filled a niche that the market was only just beginning to demand. Soon, almost every tech firm that produced laptops, desktops, and smartphones, were making tablets too. While the advent of the tablet was a case of seeing a gap in the market and releasing the device at the right time, its demise has essentially come at its own hand and for many complex reasons.

Why is the Tablet Going Out of Fashion?

In a declining market, the top sellers remain the usual names: Apple and Samsung. Although, some forecasts predict that Huawei will buck the trend and make net gains in 2019 (despite problematic choices from their CEO). It could be argued that the reason for the decline of the tablet is that it became a victim of its own success.

Filling any technological niche (in this case between the smartphone and the laptop) will usually result in one of two outcomes.

The first is that the old technology will fade into irrelevance and disappear, replaced by the all-purpose device with all the benefits of the smartphone and the laptop and none of the drawbacks.

The second is that the competing technologies rally and introduce a range of improvements, including adopting ideas from the competing devices.

That is what happened to the tablet. Cheaper models are losing sales to phablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Note, iPhone XS Max and the Huawei Mate Pro, while more expensive models are losing sales back to laptops.

It’s not all about the technology. Tablet users tend to have quite specific needs – either as business users for a single work function, or general leisure users looking to manage finances, play games, and surf the web. Their functionality and inbuilt technology mean they do not need replacing as often.

It is believed that tablet sales are also dropping because users don’t feel the need to replace them as often as they would their smartphones.

The Return of the Laptop

Laptops today are different in many ways from those available in 2010. Changes adopted largely from tablets have effectively created a renaissance.

  • Solid state drives replaced the old-style hard disk with its moving parts and fan required to keep it cool. This reduces the operation cost in terms of power and therefore the financial cost, increasing from an average of around 4 hours to an impressive 9-10 hours. SSDs only have a small hard disk capacity which suits leisure users.
  • Hybrid laptops essentially created and filled a niche between laptops and tablets. To all intents and purposes, they are tablets but one that the user can convert into a laptop by attaching a keyboard. Notably, these tablet devices are maintaining sales right now.
  • Laptops with touch screens are like hybrid laptops but with a couple of notable differences. They have the touchscreen of tablets that traditional laptops lack. However, they do have all the internal features of a laptop and don’t have a detachable keyboard.

It is perhaps ironic that the renaissance of the laptop has come at the expense of the tablet. Apple is undeterred. In late 2018, they announced the release of a new iPad Pro. But with a price range upwards of £800 with the top end device close to £2,000, it’s unlikely to resurrect the ailing market.

Is the End Nigh for Tablets?

It’s been widely reported that tablet sales have dropped for 16 consecutive quarters but there are reasons to be positive. The major manufacturers still sold in the region of hundreds of millions of devices in 2018. The market leaders Samsung and Apple lost ground, but the third biggest seller Huawei increased sales of their tablet devices due to careful and committed investment.

There is certainly a future for tablets to which users may attach a keyboard. These hybrids are maintaining sales and permit the user the flexibility and choice. The big players are looking elsewhere but are not planning to halt production. It may be quite some time before we can effectively announce that the tablet is dead, but the at the present the future of the tablet certainly isn’t looking too strong.

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