3 ways to fix the stagnant tablet market

And now, a lament dedicated to the death of the tablet: Alas, we hardly knew ye.

All right, maybe that’s a little melodramatic. We shouldn’t be digging a grave for our tablets yet; however, if things get any worse, we will have to look at putting the tablet market on life support. Once upon a time, it appeared as if tablets were going to become a legitimate option for replacing your laptop or PC. Microsoft‘s Surface Pro 3 has been sold entirely on this basis. More and more though, tablets are looking like an ancillary device, which only the most ardent of techies will invest in.

“2014 was a hard dose of reality for the tablet market, which after having grown to a serious business finds itself in a similar, if slightly better position to the traditional PC market,” writes Jason Mick at DailyTech.“ In Q4 2014, the PC market contracted slightly, shrinking 2.4 percent on a year to year basis, according to market research data from the International Data Corp. (IDC). Tablets, were even worse, though, shrinking 3.2 percent in sales on quarterly year-on-year (YoY) basis, according to the IDC’s Tablet Tracker.”

Compared to other products, the growth-rate for tablets also feels noticeably slow. “People are buying tablets, but they’re not replacing them fast enough to achieve smartphone-like sales growth,” asserts Mick. “While smartphones may eventually top a billion units in sales, tablets are likely stuck and more PC-like annual sales of between a quarter and a third of a billion units.”

The issue here is that people will always need PCs. While the market continues to be poised to go up and down, in a seemingly endless cycle of upgrades and revisions, the basic necessity will still be there. So the question then becomes: Who really needs a tablet? Think about it. You might have a tablet. You might really like it. You might even be contemplating purchasing a tablet for the first time or buying a new one right now. However, when it comes to your daily life, do you really need one?

If the answer is no, it doesn’t have to be. By improving a few important areas, the tablet market can rise again and prove that the tablet can be the revolutionary device many predicted it would be in the first place.  

1) Mobile Data

This might sound like a simple fix, yet for some reason, we’re just not there yet. Because make no mistake, people do use their tablets to browse the Internet. Yahoo! Finance’s Aaron Pressman notes that “about 77 percent of tablet-based website traffic comes from iPads, down only slightly from 81 percent last year, according to the Chitika advertising network.” Not bad, right? At least, not for the iPad. But not great either. Pressman continues, “That is likely a backward-looking indicator reflecting Apple’s lead in the early years of tablet sales.”  

So while other tablets might be taking some traffic away from Apple, the larger problem stems from whether people want to use their tablets to surf the Internet in general. Pressman goes on to suggest that this is not the biggest concern for Apple or the tablet market as a whole: “Even with the current imbalance, Web surfing only reveals one small way in which tablets are used. … Consumer surveys have found over and over again that the most popular activities on tablets include email, gaming and social media, along with watching video and listening to music.”

However, the kicker is that most of those activities do require some kind of Internet connection to facilitate, and this is a major issue for the tablet market, particularly in relation to smartphones. We’ve already established that tablet growth pales in comparison to smartphone growth, and surely, much of this is due to easier Internet access.

“Almost everyone who has a tablet also has a smartphone, and not vice versa,” reasons Steve Max Patterson at Network World. “If it were really easy to tether a tablet to a smartphone, so easy that your grandmother could do it, free or nearly free of data fees and overages and secure…tablet shipments would pick up. A Wi-Fi-only, 16 GB version of the Nexus 7 only costs $229, and the large-screen Wi-Fi-only iPad Air with 16 GB costs $499, with a lot of affordable choices in between.”

Tablets need better mobile data capabilities to improve. While actual data plans may be a slippery slope for some (paying for data on more than one devices could get pretty expensive), accessibility and easiness are essential. 

In that spirit, your smartphone doesn’t have to be a reason for you not to buy a tablet, but actually, just the opposite. Watching video, for instance, is much more pleasurable on a tablet than a smartphone. But that pleasure can’t be experienced if the two devices aren’t entirely compatible with one another. So whether you want to pay for a data plan, or just use your tablet as an extension of your smartphone, Internet access remains a key factor in the fight to save the tablet market.  

2) Software

This also sounds obvious, but the reality here is more complicated, Yes, tablet software has undoubtedly improved over the years; however, the truth is that the tablet landscape at large really hasn’t evolved all that much since its inception. As the Daily Dot’s Micah Singleton points out, “From the original iPad in 2010 to the iPad Air, few things have actually changed. Sure it’s faster, as all products are compared to those released in 2010, but the Retina display is the only major addition to the iPad line since the original.”

For hardcore tablet users, Retina display is probably essential, but a tablet that looks great is always going to be less useful if what’s inside isn’t just as beautiful. As How To Geek‘s Chris Hoffman puts it:

The iPad’s software doesn’t really take advantage of the larger screen like it should. You can’t run multiple apps at once, a feature that might justify picking up a tablet. Yes, there are niche apps that can take advantage of the larger display for some professional uses, but tablets become less compelling as your smartphone becomes larger.

The same is true in Android land. Google has killed the Nexus 7 tablet now that they have a Nexus 6 smartphone. Why would you want a 7-inch tablet if you have a 6-inch phone?

So what are you really getting when you buy a new and improved iPad, or other tablet? “The only other way Apple has changed the iPad is to make it thinner and lighter. Constantly. With no rhyme or reason, and no end to the shrinkage,” writes Singleton. This brings us back to the tricky intersection of tablets and smartphones. Because with products like the iPhone 6, how much bigger do you need to go? Many people have talked about the rise of a sort of “phablet,” a smartphone large enough to replace the need for tablets altogether. But as for tablets replacing laptops and PCs, well, now we’re back to square one.

None of which is to say that there haven’t been some important shifts in tablet software. “It’s true, for example, that Apple’s custom-designed A7 processor is more powerful than the chips in competing products,” observes Pressman. “But consumers don’t yet see a need for all that horsepower. After all, almost no one’s running the full blown version of Photoshop on a tablet, and typical gaming apps seem to run fine on devices that cost half the price of an iPad.”

The things is that consumers’ dismissal of this “horsepower” is also a major reason why the tablet market is in decline. For techies, inadequate software is a cardinal sin. And as far as non-techies go, most of them aren’t currently buying tablets anyway. Some consumers are happy to trade in software limitations for decreased prices, but for tablets to actually stake their claim as powerful, useful devices, then they’re going to have to become a lot more powerful a lot quicker.

3) Functionality

This is the most important one. For the tablet market to bounce back, consumers need to start seeing tablets as a necessity, rather than a luxury. Everyone knows tablets are great for when you’re flying or making your train commute to work and back. But “portable” isn’t a good enough reason for most people to spend money on an electronics purchase, especially when, again, so many people already have smartphones and other similar products. 

Or, to put it another way, like the iPod before them, tablets are being replaced by devices which don’t necessarily do the same thing better, but which do the same thing and more. The ability to store a wide selection of books on one’s tablet, for instance, may appeal to those who are voracious readers. But those who are content to merely look at Facebook or browse the web for articles to read aren’t likely to see something like electronic reading, for example, as a necessity. Basically, we need our tablets to do more, and that doesn’t just mean adding cool apps.   

It’s not a stretch to suggest that for the typical American office worker, a tablet isn’t going to be a good substitute for their trusty old laptop or PC. Eileen Brown at ZDNet argues, “While it might be useful for the casual user who wants an additional device for leisure purposes, the office hot desk warrior might struggle to embrace this form factor.”

Knowledge workers that spend all day at their screens will want to add an external screen to aid their productivity and fast typists will find the optional touch or Type cover slows them down when writing and editing documents throughout the day… the touch screen makes it easy to manipulate document and spreadsheets; but you will favour your external mouse over using the glide pad. Use it as a touch screen tablet to display photos, watch videos and browse the web. Use the pen…to write casual notes. But as a device to replace your souped-up laptop with its superfast games graphics card, multiple USB ports and decent sized keyboard? I don’t think so.

Setting out to test Brown’s theory, Matt Smith at Digital Trends actually decided to replace his laptop with an iPad for three months. What he found was revealing. Smith writes, “After configuring my new iPad, I immediately dove into the meat of my testing: productivity. My plan was simple: load Google Drive, then work. This was the obvious choice because, like so many people, I already use Google Docs as my default online productivity suite.”

Initially, things seemed to be going fairly well for Smith. However, once he tried to really buckle down and get some work done with the tablet, his results worsened. Smith continues, “things went…nowhere. The Google Drive app loaded without issue, as did my documents, but the user experience wasn’t great. Technically, you can do a lot, but the features of the document editor weren’t robust. To make matters worse, I ran into occasional lag between my keystrokes and their input on-screen… Defeated, I headed back to my office to work on my powerful, reliable desktop.”

Nevertheless, in the end Smith did find a few benefits to the all-tablet lifestyle. “All of my personal use, from writing emails to playing games, was accomplished on the tablet. Why? Because a tablet’s simply better for consumption, while also good enough for most productivity.”

But is good enough really good enough? We have so many other ways to enjoy consumption through technology, be it on our TVs, computers, laptops, or smartphones. Does one other avenue really make it worth it to buy a tablet? If current market trends are any indication, then no, it probably doesn’t.

So how do we make tablets more functional? “Laptops (and desktops) are also still necessary, providing a powerful mouse-and-keyboard interface with multiple windows and multitasking,” asserts Hoffman. “For productivity use—or just multitasking—an iPad or Android tablet is much clunkier to use than a standard Windows, Mac, Linux, or even Chrome OS PC. … Tablets need to evolve, so they can actually use that bigger screen to do more than a smartphone can do. A tablet with multitasking, perhaps even with a larger screen, now that’s a bit more compelling.”

However, giving tablets a bigger screen, so they’re more like laptops and less like smartphones, isn’t really enough. In fact, this only makes it so that tablets go from competing with one device to another. The ideal scenario finds tablets, in addition to becoming more data-friendly and equipped with better software, able to offer unique opportunities all their own.

In this sense, the appeal of the tablet actually does have to become narrower rather than wider, but not in the way you might think. Obviously, selling tablets to techies alone isn’t enough. The true solution, going forward, has to be to sell tablets to individuals who really will need them to do their job. 

It’s a case of specifics: An office worker might not need a tablet for everyday productivity, but there is untapped potential in other job fields for tablets to be implemented. Creative careers, for instance, could benefit greatly from the easy-to-carry nature of tablets. On movie sets, photo shoots, and the like, better tablets could offer a much-needed flexibility that a laptop can’t. Or in the military, tablets could serve as a less clunky alternative for other computer equipment, assuming they can offer adequate computing power, of course. And then there’s education, where tablets are already changing the way children learn about technology and become prepared for the future.

Right now, tablets are not essential to these fields, or any others, for that matter. But if tablet manufacturers can only figure out what they can offer people who work in defined settings, then the possibilities are endless. No, tablets may never replace PCs or laptops, and smartphones are likely to become more commonplace than ever moving forward. But if the tech sector can figure out who can truly benefit from a tablet purchase, to the point where they have to have one just to keep up with their job, then growth in the tablet market will surely be on the rise again. People in the market for luxury purchases and techies aren’t enough. For tablets to survive, they have to reach everyone.

Tablets are fun, cool, and occasionally useful. That’s never been the problem. The problem is in taking out the “occasionally,” and switching around the order of that sentence. 

Photo via twicepix/Flickr (CC BY-S.A. 2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.