During the first quarter of 2014, the young digital tablet market saw a slowdown in sales. This raises questions on what the future holds for the tablet segment and what can be done to revive enthusiasm for this device.
The recent slowdown in sales of digital tablets is highlighted in the latest Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker published by global IT and telecoms market intelligence specialist International Data Corporation (IDC). In total, 50.4 million tablets were shipped worldwide between January and March this year, and although this figure is 3.9% higher than for the same period in 2013, global growth in the tablet market – including all screen sizes, brands and operating systems – is slowing. Some manufacturers are actually seeing a drop in sales – Apple’s sales for instance were 16.1% down on first quarter 2013. Basile Carle, Mobile Devices and Platforms Expert at digital economy think tank Idate, points out that “when a market runs out of steam after only five years that raises some questions.” He believes that “this slowdown will warn manufacturers that the tablet market is in need of a boost.” There are however a number of reasons behind this slowdown in growth.
Tablet caught between PC and smartphone
Basically, the tablet sector is facing a dilemma: "While tablet manufacturers initially focused on making their terminals more mobile and easier to use than laptops, something unexpected happened. Computers also started to become increasingly light and transportable, and some now even have touchscreens. So in order to retain market share, it might well now be in the interests of the digital tablet makers to respond to this trend and provide more PC-like functionality,” suggests Nicolas Blaisot-Balette, a digital innovation expert at consulting firm Thiga. Perhaps more importantly, competition for sales in this segment is now also coming from smartphones. The popularity of ‘phablets’, basically large-screen phones, shows that a tablet whose sole advantage is a screen sized to make reading text or watching a film easier may not be seen as a necessary purchase. Another explanation for the slowdown in tablet sales could be market saturation, i.e. all likely customers for this type of device may already own one.
Possible ways forward for manufacturers
Whatever the cause of the slowdown in orders, it seems clear that manufacturers now need to give their product some kind of refresher if they want to revive sales in a market that for the last five years has been extremely lucrative. This could be achieved by providing extra added value vis-à-vis smartphones, or simply by reducing prices to attract new customers. “Perhaps more effort should be made to integrate the tablet into the digital home," suggests Basile Carle. Or perhaps they ought to take the opposite approach – i.e. “focus their efforts on the mobile aspect of the device, try to bring the weight down even more and expand its functionality,” he speculates. Meanwhile Nicolas Blaisot-Balette points to a new market that tablet manufacturers could decide to address, i.e. using tablets as interactive devices for public advertising. He sees this as a "new segment that is worth trying to exploit, especially for mass retail.” This novel use of the tablet would mean that manufacturers would not have to choose between moving towards PC form factor or smartphone form factor.