Is the tablet era already coming to an end?

Tablet sales growth is slowing, and discounts are starting to appear. What role will tablets play going forward?

When Apple created the tablet category with the introduction of the iPad just four years ago, it set the world on fire. The iPad’s incredible popularity inspired multitudes of competitors for both consumers and businesses. Tablets’ growing capabilities began stealing mind share and market share from traditional PCs, causing a seismic shift in the computing market. Cheaper, more portable, and easier to use, tablets seemed to be on unstoppable run.

Until now, that is.

Last week, I wrote about the rise of the phablet, the ungainly but increasingly popular offspring of smartphones and tablets that promises to replace two devices with a single unit. At the time, I noted that research house IDC cited phablet sales as a factor in the reduced forecasts for tablets.

This week, IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker offered more detail, predicting the tablet market would grow only 19.4% in 2014, which is still a big come down from 2013’s 51.6% growth rate. Perhaps even more tellingly, Best Buy is now offering up to $175 off of select iPads -- a discount that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago. (To be fair, the deal requires a two-year carrier service activation, but still…)

What’s going on here?

Believe it or not, I think we’re seeing a tablet backlash. Much as I love my iPad Air and Nexus 7, the truth is that they are the least essential of all the devices in my computing arsenal. And I suspect that’s true for most everyone else as well.

Smartphones, laptops, tablets... in that order

In the modern world, most people simply can’t be as productive without their smartphones. That’s how you stay connected and increasingly accomplish tasks that used to require a full-fledged PC. Sure, doing some things remains awkward on the relatively tiny screen (hello phablets!), but to borrow a meme from another popular device, the only way you’ll take away my smartphone is if you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

On the other hand, while pundits like to pronounce that the PC is dead, many of us still need big-boy laptops to get our work done. Whether that means writing blog posts, editing complex documents, building giant spreadsheets, or designing aircraft engines, for doing real work you can’t beat a powerful processor and a giant screen.

So where does that leave tablets? Pretty much in the “nice to have” category. Perfect for comfortably consuming media, mostly at home on the couch by yourself. If you’ve got friends or family around, the big-screen TV is still a better choice. You can also do some content creation in a pinch, but it really is a pinch, practically speaking.

If I had to give up one of my devices, guess which one I’m going to choose? And I’d bet that most people would make the same choice, even if they didn’t like it much.

Now, ask yourself that same question in an enterprise context. Which devices could your organization do without? Sure, tablets can be incredibly handy in walk-around environments like retail sales and factory floors, but if push came to shove, would you really give up your company’s PCs or smartphones before the tablets? I didn’t think so.

Tablets not going away

That doesn’t mean that tablets are going to go away, any more than PCs are really dead. But it may be time to get over the notion that tablets are going to be everywhere and do everything. Tablets have a role to play a growing in the enterprise, and IT will continue to have to support them, but they’re not going to take over.

Unless, of course, they turn into phablets!

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.