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Amid growth slowdown, are tablets losing their appeal?

IDC says tablet sales growth have considerably slowed down this year. Does this mean tablets are starting to fizzle out in popularity? What’s the next big trend, then?

In this concept of the near future, computer interfaces will be more natural than dealing with touchscreens, keypads and trackpads.
In this concept of the near future, computer interfaces will be more natural than dealing with touchscreens, keypads,  trackpads, or even screens for that matter.

The year 2013 was the year of Android tablets. During that period, tablet sales grew 51.6 percent over 2012 figures, mostly fueled by sales of inexpensive no-brand tablets. These so-called “whitebox” tablets usually come with lower specs and older versions of Android, compared to flagships and mid-rangers from the bigger brands, however, which come with bleeding edge specs and regular updates. It seems that this year will see a slowdown in tablet sales growth, though. IDC expects that tablet shipments in 2014 will grow by only 19.3 percent compared to last year’s figures.

The analytics firm says that this will be due to the maturing of the tablet market. While inexpensive tablets were the norm last year, manufacturers are coming up with more premium offerings, or at least products that are a bit pricier, but give more bang for the buck.

“After years of strong growth, we expect the white-box tablet market to slow in 2014 as consumers move to higher-end devices that work better and last longer,” said Tom Mainelli of IDC. “In mature markets, where many buyers have purchased higher-end products from market leaders, consumers are deciding that their current tablets are good enough for the way they use them.”

Still, these analytics companies foresee an interesting trend in tablet computers. This could be a good opportunity for device makers to look to alternative devices to build, possibly including hybrid tablets, or tablets that have some laptop functionality. We already saw the Microsoft Surface flopping in the market, but it did generate some buzz for a time. Now that Microsoft is finalizing its acquisition of Nokia within the year, we might be in for a few surprises when Redmond ramps up its hardware production.

IDC predicts that Android will still continue be the dominant tablet platform in the foreseeable future (alongside the iPad). But who knows what could be in store for Android in the years to come? Will the competition still be in tablets or even smartphones, for that matter?

Netbooks all over again?

Trends are, of course, one way through which businesses can gauge the popularity of a certain product niche, thereby being able to respond accordingly. For instance, in 2008, netbooks started gaining ground. These were inexpensive alterantives to notebook computers, and were considerably more affordable than premium ultraportable devices, which used to cost far more than regular notebook computers.

The netbook trend spawned a whole new market segment for cheap computers, although not all of these devices offered a great user experience. A lot of devices were under-spec’d, underpowered and simply less usable and less durable than notebook computers. But even Apple — which promised never to produce netbooks — had to relent somehow, by producing the ultra-thin and ultra-light MacBook Air series. These were not inexpensive devices — certainly not to be considered “netbooks” — but today the Air is probably the gold standard in ultraportable notebook computers.

Perhaps the same can be said for tablets. The past two years were probably an era for rapid rise in terms of numbers. Maybe we are on the way to a golden age for tablets. As IDC predicts, these will be more durable, better-quality devices than cheap and disposable sub-$100 tablets. But it should not stop there.

Looking ahead, we can should think beyond handheld devices as interfaces for personal computing, what with the idea of wearable devices and connected objects through the Internet of Things. Tablets are only one way through which humans can interface with the Internet. These are increasingly becoming cumbersome, though. The next natural progression would be devices we can wear on our bodies — glasses, watches, earpieces and pieces of clothing — that can let us simply connect through a more immersive experience.

More immersive experiences

Echoing production designer KK Barrett’s thoughts on user interfaces when designing for the film Her, “technology should be invisible.” It should blend into our daily lives rather than become intrusive. We have been thinking too much of user interfaces as elements we drag and drop, swipe across screens, or flick out of thin air a la Minority Report.

Tablets are just the next logical progression or evolution after — or alongside — notebooks, netbooks and smartphones. It’s never really the end-game of progress, especially if these involve seven-inch devices that distract our attention from all else in our lives. For more immersive experiences, it’s the likes of Google Glass and Samsung Gear we should be looking forward to as being the major access points to getting online.

Therefore, we should not mourn the demise of the tablet, if the trend does point toward this possibility at all. Rather, we should revel in the fact that we’re living in exciting times.