After years of meteoric growth, the tablet market may finally be reaching a plateau. According to a research firm called IDC, tablets had a strong holiday sales quarter to close out 2013. However, the firm also thinks that the marketplace may be getting a bit saturated, not just because more companies are putting out more tablets than ever before, but also because most users interested in purchasing a tablet have already done so at this point.
Tablets vs. Smartphones: Same Business Model or Different Beasts Entirely?
Considering how popular units like the Apple iPad, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and the Amazon Kindle Fire have been over the past few years, it’s difficult to imagine a world where those and other similar products are not selling like hot cakes. From classrooms to boardrooms, tablets are now almost as commonly seen as laptop computers, and many tech analysts believe they have played a substantial role in bringing about the decline of the PC desktop. Furthermore, smartphones have seen similar levels of growth to the tablet over the past decade, and those particular gadgets have yet to hit a ceiling on their growth. Heck, consumers still reliably line up outside of storefronts every year to get their hands on the latest iPhone. Shouldn’t tablets – which are essentially just a bridge product between smartphones and laptops – have the same sustainable growth as their smaller cousins?
Unfortunately for technology companies, while the tablet does share a lot of similarities with the smartphone, sustainable growth may not be one of them. Part of the reason companies like Apple and Samsung are able to sell new versions of their smartphones year after year is that smartphones tend toward entropy a lot more quickly than other tech gadgetry. Heavy phone use, combined with two-year mobile carrier contracts, give smartphones a relatively brief lifecycle. Someone who bought a new iPhone can reliably be counted on by Apple to purchase another one in 2015. Since most people use their phones more frequently than any other form of technology, the devices lose charge in their batteries and see an overall decline in power and performance. Combine these factors with phones that get lost, broken, or traded in for newer models, and it’s not surprising that technology companies can keep selling new products to the same customers that bought their old ones.
The Longer Tablet Lifecycle
Tablets, however, don’t generally see anywhere near as much use as phones, and therefore do not have the same accepted two-year lifecycle. Those who use their tablets all day, every day and charge them every night might see similar two-year lifespans. However, since many consumers only use their tablets a fraction as much as their phones, they can also cut back on the frequency with which they charge those larger devices. Since most modern devices feature flash memory with no moving parts, their lifespans are often determined largely by charge cycles. Thus, a tablet battery that is charged only three or four times a week instead of six or seven can last almost twice as long. Tablets lasting longer means that fewer buyers are returning to the marketplace for replacement models after only a year or two, which could indeed spell trouble for companies like Apple and Samsung in the coming years as their main consumers live out the longer lifespans of their devices.
There are many benefits that have brought consumers to the tablet market. The question is whether we are on the cusp of the next big breakthrough or if that tablet is here to stay.