IN 2013 the sales figures of tablets were pointing skyward. Market research, analysis and advisory firm International Data Corp. (IDC) viewed the compact gadget as the next big thing in the tech world, one that would give long-standing champion PCs a run for its money.
That year IDC predicted that the worldwide shipment of tablets would see an average increase rate of 11 percent through 2016. All that momentum would lead to, as the outlook forecasted, the previously unthinkable: tablets surpassing PC sales as soon as 2017.
And so, here we are. Was IDC’s four-year outlook on the worldwide shipments of tablets spot-on?
It couldn’t have been more off the mark.
An IDC media release reported last month that the worldwide tablet market contracted in the first quarter of 2017 with total shipments of 36.2 million, a year-over-year decline of 8.5 percent. That’s the 10th straight quarter that tablet shipments have dropped. Tenth.
The findings were based from the IDC Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker, which adds that the previous five quarters even saw double-digit plops.
IDC said that the tablet market is comprised of two different product categories that are headed in “very” different directions. On the one hand, there are devices referred to detachable tablets, which offer a first-party keyboard. IDC noted that many of these products have grown to resemble, perhaps, traditional notebook PCs or laptops. This segment continues to grow.
On the other hand, there are slate tablets that lack a hardware keyboard option or don’t come with one. These were mainly the ones seen to topple PCs in the IDC report cited earlier. However, after its shipment peaked in 2014, it has faced a steep and steady decline.
“It appears for many reasons consumers became less eager to refresh these devices, or in some instances purchase them at all,” IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers Program Vice President Ryan Reith said in a statement. The IDC executive pointed to “increased dependency on smartphones”, along with “rather minimal technology and form factor progression”, as the leading drivers for the sudden and massive change in consumer preference.
Nevertheless, Reith said that the rate at which the tablet market grew from 2010 (marked as the “birth” of the segment with the launch of the first-generation iPad) to 2013 was “unlike many other consumer-oriented device markets we’ve seen before”.
Consequently, it was during this period when the PC market had one of its worst struggles. From a peak in 2011, PC shipments went down by roughly 30 percent. Users, however, generally delayed PC replacements rather than giving it up for other devices, IDC PCD Tracker research manager Jay Chou said.
This, along with the improvement of the PC Gaming segment and the rising saturation of tablets and smartphones, was one of the reasons IDC reported an improvement in worldwide shipments of traditional PCs (desktop, notebook, workstation) in the first quarter of 2017 at 0.6 percent. The uptick represented the first recorded growth in five years for the PC market, which, in turn, busted a previous forecast of a 1.8-percent decline.
The last time worldwide shipments of traditional PCs saw a move into positive territory was in the first quarter of 2012, “when a lot of users still considered PCs their first computing device”, the IDC report stated.
Another factor that brought about the PCs’ resurgence is the overwhelming success of Google’s low-cost laptop, the Chromebook. American technology news source The Verge (theverge.com) has been closely monitoring the effect of the product’s sales performance in the overall PC market.
In April the site ran a story, titled “Are Chromebooks responsible for PC market growth?”. The Verge laid out the IDC report that the PC market has experienced growth for the first time in half a decade, in contrast to the findings of another market research firm, Gartner, which revealed a different story. It said that PC shipments actually declined by 2.4 percent.
The Verge was quick to explain that IDC’s data “includes Chromebooks and excludes Windows tablets, even machines with a detachable keyboard like the Surface Pro”. Meanwhile, Gartner “counts Windows-based tablets as PCs and excludes Chromebooks or any non-Windows-based tablets”. Between IDC’s reported 0.6-percent growth and Gartner’s reported 2.4-percent drop-off, that’s a difference of about 1.8 percent, partly by a single product’s doing.
Recently, The Verge came out with another report regarding the Chromebook, which has become increasingly popular in schools and business in the US. It said that on top of the product outselling Apple’s range of Macs in the US last year, Google’s product is starting to concern another major player: Microsoft. “Google’s Chrome OS is the biggest threat to Windows’ existence right now, simply because Google’s business model is devices that are cheap to buy and easy to use. Apple’s model of costly tablets in schools and businesses hasn’t really taken off yet, with iPad sales crashing,” the story reports.
Whether the Chromebook is just scaling the tip of the iceberg or otherwise, its success—much like the one enjoyed by the maiden iPad in 2010—just goes to show that in a battle between billion-dollar market segments, a single product can be enough to tip the scales. Your move, tablets. ✚