How the Tablet Market Differs From the Smartphone Market

Learn more about the tablet market and how it works so you can decide if the market is really in decline or is it just changing based on consumers needs.

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How the Tablet Market Differs From the Smartphone Market

It seems like almost every week we read a new article about how tablets are dead. In some ways, they may be correct. But I believe that their premise for declaring that a tablet is dead is, well, dead wrong. The fact is that the tablet market is very different from the smartphone market, and the sales of tablets demonstrate that clearly, but many tech writers fail to see this difference.

So I suggest you all stop believing the hype around the death of tablets and start looking at how the tablet market differs from the smartphone market. Once you do, you begin to see why tablet sales are in a “slump”. In fact, once you understand the market, I believe you will begin to see it the way I do. How do I see it? Tablets are not in a slump. Their market is just very different.

How Tablet Doomsday Criers Are Correct

To be honest, the tablet doomsday “experts” aren’t entirely incorrect. The fact is that the tablet market has been steadily dropping for some time. According to the IDC, tablet sales fell in the fourth quarter last year by as much as 20.1 percent.

“The sentiment around the tablet market continues to grow stale despite a lot of talk about vendors pivoting their product portfolios toward the detachable segment,” said Ryan Reith, program vice president with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers. “Typical tablets without a dedicated keyboard, which IDC refers to as slate tablets, are continuing to lose relevancy across all regions and, as a result, we see the decline happening globally. We do see future growth in some emerging markets like the Middle East & Africa as well as Central & Eastern Europe with the sole catalysts being simplicity and low cost. Unfortunately for the industry these are the devices that don’t equate to large revenues.”

That’s a huge drop when you think about it. But, it represents a drop from a time when tablets were still considered new and many consumers were leaping at the chance to pick one up. Today, they are like many other devices in our homes, and that alters the market as we know it.

Many so called experts believe that the time of the tablet is over because of these figures, and it’s easy to see why they would believe that. But I believe there is more to it than that.

There is also a belief that the market and products have stagnated, as manufacturers have failed to offer anything really new to the market that would make consumers rush out to the store and buy one. In many ways this is true. While the devices have gotten more powerful, can the new devices today really do a lot more compared to some of the first tablets to be released? Not really. In the cases where they can, its often only in small ways that often aren’t enough to cause consumers to rush out and buy something new.

A lot of the manufacturers have slowed down their releases as well. Just look at Samsung, for example. There was almost two years between the release of the Galaxy Tab S2 and the Galaxy Tab S3. As you can see, a slower release window means less demand from consumers as they find their existing tablet is more than enough for their needs.

How Consumers Use Tablets

To understand why the tablet market is in the state is in, you must understand how consumers use their tablets.

Not A Smartphone

First, they don’t use them like a smartphone. These devices don’t go with them wherever they go. Most tablets remain at home and are used as entertainment devices, with a little light work on the side. Consumers use these devices for a more comfortable way of consuming media. That could be surfing the Internet, watching movies, or even playing a few games when they have spare time. Because they aren’t used like a smartphone, most consumers don’t believe they need to invest in a new one every other year like they do a smartphone.

Hardware Lasts Longer

The other thing you need to consider is the hardware. Tablets are often much more powerful than smartphones, although that is changing as hardware evolves. Still, the app market really hasn’t kept up with the hardware, so that means that the same apps today can still run on devices that are much older.

Take the iPad Air, for example. It was first released on November 1, 2013. Just over 4 years ago now. Four years! And you can still find it available for sale. Not only that, but it is still compatible with all the latest apps so it will continue to be viable for quite some time. While there are definitely more powerful tablets out there with a lot more features, for many users they will never need anything more than what the iPad Air can provide, even though we are talking about a four year old tablet.

So what does this mean for tablets? It means that many users are keeping their tablets far longer than they do a smartphone. In fact, some are keeping their tablets for four or five years or more. This translates into fewer sales for tablets as consumers hang on to their devices. This scenario is very good for consumers, as tablets act more like a laptop, but it does cause sales to drop when you compare them to other types of devices.

Some Don’t Use Them At All

Finally, you have to remember there is a segment of consumers that own a laptop and a smartphone, but just don’t see any need for a tablet. Their lifestyles don’t allow for the time or the desire to use the media consuming devices, and when they do, they just use their smartphones or laptops for it instead of spending more money on a device that they will only use occasionally. This is different when compared to the smartphone and laptop markets, as most every consumer believes these to be necessities today.

What Market Are They Really Like?

So, now that we understand how consumers really use tablets, it’s much easier to identify which market they are truly more like. The fact is that while they may look like a bigger version of a smartphone and while they may run the same software, when it comes to use they are nothing like a phone. Yes, they do similar things in much the same way, but how consumers use them are totally different.

Because tablets are used as more of an entertainment device than an essentially accessory like a smartphone, I believe that the tablet market is much more like the television market than the smartphone market. Think about how often you buy a new television. It’s not like you run out a buy a new television every year, now do you? Okay, I’m sure some of you out there do. But for most of us, we buy a television and then keep it anywhere from five to ten years and sometimes even longer than that.

The same can be said for a tablet. Consumers hang on to their tablets for a few years, if not more, before they start looking for a new one. Contrast that with the smartphone market, where consumers are upgrading their devices whenever the latest phone is released or at least every two years when their contracts are up. And this is needed in the smartphone world. Our smartphones go with us every day. That means after two years of being carried around with us as an extension of our arm, most of them need to be replaced.

But tablets are very different. Most tablets don’t travel with us unless we take a trip and want a bigger screen on the plane to watch our favorite movie.

How to Change the Game

Now I’m not saying that tablet makers couldn’t change the game. In fact, they could. But to do it, they are really need to pull off something truly innovative. Right now, a tablet can replace a laptop for many people maybe 80 percent of the time. But even basic users still need a laptop or a desktop for some of their computing tasks. If you really want to see the tablet market explode, that will have to change.

We have already seen new innovations from Microsoft and others as they release the hybrid tablets that give you the best of both worlds all wrapped into one expensive package. But, if you want to see tablets truly alter the computing world as we know it, tablets are going to have to do more than replace the laptop 80 percent of the time.

For the tablet market to truly explode again, manufacturers are going to have to create a tablet that can really be a complete laptop replacement. You can’t expect consumers to buy a new tablet that will only replace their laptop part of the time, even if it covers most of their tasks. They still have to invest their money in a laptop as well, and if they are going to buy a device, most will buy the one that works the most, especially if they are on a limited budget.

To be fair, I think we are almost there, but there is still much more to do if we want to see the desktop and laptop move on to a more specialized role. Will this happen? Honestly, I don’t know. The PC market represents a lot of money to many companies out there, and many will be slow to convert while profits remain high. In the end, it will take an innovator to come up with something unique that will truly alter the market, much like what Apple did when they released the first iPad.

Parting Thoughts

While tablet sales have definitely declined over the years, understanding how people use tablets and why they buy them will go a long way towards understanding why they are in a slump. In the beginning, tablets were being scooped up by everybody. Today, many people still have a tablet they bought a few years ago, because they last. Remember, that’s a good thing for consumers. These devices are much more like televisions than they are smartphones, so everyone needs to stop comparing them to smartphones.

Once you do, you realize that they are a luxury for most people, and consumers tend to keep them longer, just a like a television or even a small appliance. When you realize this, you understand that the tablet isn’t dead, it’s just different. Because they look like bigger smartphones, many people compare them to a device they carry with them every day. But that’s not what a tablet is. It’s a luxury that most of use to relax.

Because of this, the tablet will never have the market that a smartphone will. So, as you can see, the tablet isn’t dead. It’s just not the same as a smartphone. So stop crying about the death of the tablet and really look at what they are and how they are used. Once you do, I think you will agree that the tablet isn’t going anywhere. While sales may never be as they were when they were first released, they still continue to be a popular choice for consumers and will continue to be for many years to come.