Are tablets dying?

Are tablets dying?

1. Innovation has stalled

For the first few years after the iPad hit, tablet manufacturers went crazy trying to outdo each other with new designs, high-performance components and exciting new features. Apple, Samsung, Sony and Amazon brought Retina and Full HD screens into play. Devices grew slimmer, with the iPad thinning from 13mm in the first-generation iPad to 7.4mm with the iPad Air. Microsoft’s Surface and Surface Pro had their click-in keyboards and kickstands, while Samsung brought in the Stylus with the Galaxy Note. Processors moved on from dual-core processors with a basic GPU to quad- and octa-core processors with the kind of GPU that could have powered a last-generation games console.

Apple iPad Pro

“Features such as a stylus or a split-screen app view are useful to some users, but irrelevant to others.”

Now tablets seem to have reached a stage where they’re struggling to move on. Screens can’t reach higher resolutions without growing bigger or the differences becoming imperceptible. Battery bulk and the requirements of strong construction make growing slimmer or lighter a real challenge. Features such as a stylus or a split-screen app view are useful to some users, but irrelevant to others. And while new processors with even more powerful GPUs are arriving, there’s a dearth of software that really makes use of them. You might need high-performance GPUs to play the next Infinity Blade, Dead Trigger 2 or Real Racing 3, but tablet users are primarily casual gamers, more interested in the next Angry Birds or Clash of Clans. These games don’t require hot new hardware, and even the most demanding titles play fine on most mid- to high-end tablets.

As JP Gownder says in Forrester’s “Global Tablet Forecast 2015 to 2018”: “The iPad Air 2 compares favourably to earlier generations of iPads: it’s thinner, lighter, has a slightly better battery life and boasts a somewhat faster Wi-Fi connection, but are these incremental features enough to entice buyers to spend $499 to $829 to replace a still-functional older iPad?” Hubert Joly, CEO of the US electronics chain Best Buy, made the same point in a recent interview: “The issue has been that, once you have a tablet of a certain generation, it isn’t clear that you have to move on to the next generation.” Which leads us on neatly to our next point.

2. Users aren’t replacing tablets

Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7in

Partly because these innovations aren’t coming, and partly because tablets are so robust, a tablet’s product lifetime is much longer than that of a smartphone. This was a point made by Apple CEO Tim Cook in an earnings call this summer: “The upgrade cycle is longer,” he said of the iPad. “It’s longer than an iPhone, probably between an iPhone and a PC. We haven’t been in business long enough to say that with certainty, but that’s what we think.” Gartner research director Ranjit Atwal concurs: “The lifetime of tablets is being extended – they are shared out among family members and software upgrades, especially for iOS devices, keep the tablets current.”

The same point is made by IDC analyst Marta Fiorentini. “As users now own and use several devices (including smartphones, tablets and PCs), they tend to use some less.” Fiorentini believes that tablets and PCs are falling second fiddle to smartphones as the primary device, and that this is leading to elongated lifecycles. “Users hold onto tablets for longer than previously expected because their existing tablets are still good enough.”

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