Tablets: Not a waning fad

Tablets: Not a waning fad

Summary: Trying to buttonhole the tablet into a defined set of use cases overlooks the things it does best, especially the personal nature of the device.


Tablet sales are slowing down, possibly due to how many prospective customers have already bought one. They are not the solution for everyone, largely due to the lack of any unique function they provide.

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

A lot of useful tasks are a good fit for the tablet, consuming content not the least of them. But when you get right down to it, there's not a single function that a tablet offers that can't be done on other types of devices.

Don't get me wrong, I love tablets. Many things I do with mine are more enjoyable given the form factor. But truth be told, I can do those tasks on my smartphone. My laptop sometimes steps in to do them, too.

Tablets allow us to tap into the world's pool of information, from the little window held in our hand.

That makes tablets more of an impulse buy than smartphones and laptops. Few prospective customers window-shop for a tablet because they have to have one; it's more that they want one. The difference between wanting and needing a tablet is significant.

I believe that's a big reason why current tablet owners aren't in a hurry to upgrade to the latest and greatest. They like what they already have, and truth be told there's no reason they need one in the first place.

Why has Apple sold so many iPads if no one needs them? That's because what they do they do so well, and they are enjoyable to use. Buyers of tablets quickly understand this once they have one of their very own in hand. They are windows into the world that make you feel good when you use them.

Unlike the user experience with laptops, users often feel a personal connection with the tablet. The combination of holding it in the hand, which establishes a physical connection with the device, and the short distance between the eyes and the display, make the experience very personal in nature. It's almost as if the tablet becomes an extension of the user.

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Many first got an inkling about the strengths of tablets on early Star Trek episodes. The "padd" was often shown as a window into the USS Enterprise. As the series unfolded the padd took on a greater role and was shown more often, especially on Star Trek: Next Generation. The padd still communicated with the AI that was the ship, but it also tapped into the vast pool of information of that time.

To a lesser (but no less important) degree, today's tablets do the same thing. They allow us to tap into the world's pool of information, from the little window held in our hand. We can literally tap into virtually any piece of information in existence.

This is a very heady experience. Sure, we can do the same thing with other devices, even smartphones. Many do that very thing. But there's something compelling about the size of the tablet screen that brings information to life. We can see detail we can't with the little smartphone, even the large ones.

Consuming content, especially video, is particularly enjoyable on a tablet. The high resolution display that is fast becoming the standard plays video in a highly personal format. Having the tablet close to the eyes draws the viewer into the content in a way big screens cannot do.

Of course the tablet can be used for work, too. I do that all the time. But it’s worth noting that while I like using my tablet for getting work done, I can use a laptop. I don’t need the tablet for this, I simply like it. That may be the case for others, I see iPads used for work all the time.

I don’t lump Windows tablets, especially Microsoft’s Surface, in with other tablets. These are not tablets in the same way, they are PCs in a tablet form. Tablets are compelling mobile devices in large part due to the mobile OS and the apps. They are written from the ground up to facilitate mobile tasks. Windows is not.

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I like Windows but I prefer an iPad or Android tablet over a tablet running Microsoft’s OS for "tablet" functions. Windows tablets have too much going on all the time, and as full PCs they require thought to use as a tablet. Tablets on other platforms just require you to pick them up and start using them. It sounds trivial but it’s actually a big difference in practice. That's just me, no doubt many like using their Windows tablet just as much as those on other platforms.

Tablets are not a fad as some say, nor will they go away. They are a form perfect for what owners use them for, and they are enjoyable as much as or more than any other type of device. People who use them tend to like them a lot, even when using them in the workplace.

Tablets are compelling devices, but the fact remains there is no hard need for them. That's what makes them an impulse buy, and what makes those happy with their current tablet unlikely to upgrade to the latest and greatest model when it appears. This is what probably concerns Apple, Samsung, and other tablet makers. They have an ever shrinking market to appeal to given how many of them are already in use.

The tablet market may be getting saturated, but the personal nature of the devices and how enjoyable most users find them tells us they aren't going away any time soon. Owners won't rush to upgrade every time a better tablet comes along; it's a matter of how much they like what they have. The tablet isn't a fad that will fade away. It will be here for a very long time.

See related:

Topics: Mobility, iPad, Tablets, Microsoft Surface

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  • Not waning but people are starting to figure out that a tablet cannot ...

    ... meet all needs for all people. I'd venture there are two groups of consumers buying tablets. Those who don't need (and will never need) the power of a PC. Most of these are new to the consumer computing segment.

    The rest of these consumers (perhaps the majority) are those who have been in the consumer computing market for years. They are looking for an AUXILLIARY device that does most of what their PC can do for when they don't need that extra power.

    These folks include business users who have a desktop PC and a laptop (for meetings). These folks need portability but not the capabilities of a full PC when they are in meetings. Whether BYOD is factored in or not, a tablet is generally less expensive than laptop.

    The road warrior needs something like an ultrabook or hybrid because they still need the full power of a PC close by at all times.

    In the end, early adopters, such as myself, is on his/her third tablet (trying to find the best fit). Now that I have found it, I won't be buying another one any time soon. In our segment, the demand is flattening out.

    Among consumers new to the segment, demand will probably stay high for awhile as premium pricing settles into a commodity price-point model.

    In the end, PC power on the desktop is slowly making its way back into the machine room where economies of scale are coming back into fashion.

    Tablets are doing a subset of things that laptops once did - and they are leveraging those machine-room-based computing resources. And, the business working is still highly dependent on the desktop/laptop PC for high-end personal productivity.

    Tablets have done more to bring new customers into the segment than they have to displace personal computing.
    M Wagner
    • Re: Not waning but people are starting to figure out that a tablet cannot..

      Just think the number of people that purchased tablets be it iPads, Androids or Surface believing they will be getting a machine that will replace a Laptop or Desktop PC and how many are disappointed when they discover it can't.
  • I totally agree

    The one this that a manufacture could do to boost sales temporarily is to design a GOOD pen device. I have a Note 3 with pen support and it is "ok". Not great, but usable once I purchased a separate stylus. If someone can create a way to clearly mimic pen and paper, they'll sell a lot of upgrades.

    Otherwise a tablet is a nice viewing device. Great for reading a book or quickly checking email. Fine for watching movies if you don't have a large screen handy.

    What drives me nuts is seeing companies like Sears try to force a toy (read iPad) into a business market. I stop going there because the check-out lines are always backed-up. Either the employee doesn't know how to use the iPad, or more often, the device (which wasn't designed for this in the first place) isn't working as the developer promised. Its really sad to think a corporation like Sears can be sold such a bill of goods.
  • Don't we all believe tablets (and smartphones) will eventually "disappear"?

    Maybe I just read too much sci-fi - but it just seems inevitable to me that tablets/smartphones will morph into form factors where displays integrated into glasses or contact lenses, sub-vocalization will permit interaction without the talking-to-yourself-lunatic-syndrome, finger motion or some other subtle interaction will replace poking at the thing, etc.
  • I disagree

    I can't imagine not having my (Windows) tablet. It's so liberating not to have to run to the laptop for virtually 99% of all my computer needs. They're far more than just a cozy treat. I may not be in the market for another one soon, but there is no way I won't be eventually. It's not that I simply want one. I truly need it. I don't want a non mobile device to do things. I want the tablet. And Windows is a truly excellent mobile platform. I was three years with the iPad, a year or so with the Kindle Fire. But Windows trumps both of those.
    Steve Pugliese
  • I volunteer for political campaign phone banks,

    a few miles from home, and we are not always sure which method of voter list management will be used: paper lists, web-based lists, or phone-based predictive dialer. In the event the second is the method du jour, a tablet is easier to take (provided the web site is compatible with the tablet's browser) than a laptop PC, and if one or three turns out to be the case, it was not too much of a waste of effort to bring the tablet rather than the laptop (I choose a larger size laptop in order to get a true numeric keypad).

    Incidentally, we don't want to disturb you longer than it takes to make sure we reached the right person and let you know about an event or a candidate; we are volunteers, not paid staff; sometimes we have no need to leave a voice mail, but we are often using personal cell phones, not an office system; so if you call us back an hour (or even a few minutes, if not using paper) later, we will not recognize your number and may not be able to refer back to the voter record in question, even to correct it. But if we DO reach a wrong number, we want to remove it from the list as soon as possible, so please politely inform us (some databases are from 2 or 4 years ago and we WANT to prune them early). We try to be polite (and never engage in high pressure "conversion" attempts), and we hope you will too.
  • To be a fad or not to be.

    Having used an Android Tablet (Samsung Tab 10.1) then an iPad (Christmas gift) I would agree with it being more a case of 'want' rather than 'need'. Having a tablet was pleasant, not very practical for doing any truly serious work but nice to have around for quick work access and terrific for grabbing information or media enjoyment. Then along came the Surface Pro and the "hype" got me interested. I went to our local Fry's Electronics and picked one up and played with it. I ended up buying it simply because I actually needed a laptop at the time, the iPad couldn't do what I needed and the Surface seemed like it could perform both tasks (tablet and laptop functions) with very little need to compromise. It was the understatement of the years since making that decision. I can honestly say that having the Surface is more a 'need' than a 'want' now. It has become the "go to" tool for everything and even works totally well as a desktop replacement. The Store is still far behind what I was used to with iPad and Android but I have ALL my applications and those apps I did get are of much better resolution and function than what I was used to settling for with other platforms.

    I can't see a huge demand for Surface Pros simply because the average consumer probably doesn't need so much power in a tablet form factor. But if you want a tablet that you can use like a legal pad for taking notes. An artist's canvas for painting in multiple (albeit digital) media. Run all the software that normally is reserved for a laptop or desktop system. With the ability to easily and at minimal cost (most will already have invested in these things anyway) turn it into a desktop workstation by plugging it into your large-screen monitor and adding peripherals like a mouse, keyboard and printer . . . well the Surface Pro is really unique and untouchable by any other system in this regard. I could no longer imagine life, and work, without it. But there is always the next great form factor to look forward to...
    The Heretic
  • Tablets fad or function

    I find it very hard to agree with much of what JK usually has to say but for most of this article he seems to reflect my own experience and feelings. A tablet is much more a personal device than a PC or Laptop. Its utility is its ability to be used away from any workplace and without furniture to support it. Even a netbook does not sit easily on your lap.

    Can they do everything that a PC/Laptop can do? Depends on what tablet you are talking about. Had an IPad and my wife has an Android tablet, you can make do with them. I now have a Surface RT and I don't have the same constraints, I can do everything I have to do on the tablet even if I have to attach the keyboard and a mouse. Try attempting doing that on IOS and Android. I use a prepaid mobile wireless device for connectivity away from our home.

    Windows is updated every fortnight, my wife's Android tablet is still running on it original OS without any patches.... ever. Same with the IPad but my Surface RT is always running the newest version of the O/S.

    Windows Tablets therefore are a different genre for sure. Office on the desktop still requires a mouse to navigate, I don't know how it could possibly work comfortably on a IPad or Android device. For MS hopefully a metro or touch friendly version of office is not too far away. BUT Surface RT is a touch centred Tablet from the bottom up apart from the desktop which even now is not a hindrance but an enhancement over other tablet O/S's. Apart from Office tasks I never really stray onto the desktop, metro apps work fine for me. There are no X86 windows legacy programs that I miss.

    Only issue that I have with Surface RT is that it feels heavier, perhaps because of its screen size and profile, and feels too expensive to throw around like an all plastic tablet. Would like to check out the Nokia but this is where JK is right, the Surface is good enough, it does not need and therefore I will not be replace it any time soon.
  • Good summary

    Good summary of the tablet's role and thoughtful comments by readers! Regarding the Surface Pro, I wish it was a tad thinner and lighter, and also, that there was a screen size option similar to the Samsung Pro 12.2 tablet. My older eyes would like a screen size just a bit larger than the existing Surface's 10.6." Hopefully, Microsoft will offer its Surface Pro in 2 sizes - and sooner rather than later.
  • Reading these comments, you would think Surface....

    And other Windows hybrid tablets PCs was selling like hotcakes.

    It always seem to start with buying the iPad thinking it was going to replace everything done with a previous Windows PC (this is coming from geeks that should know all about tech and tablets such as the iPad before purchase, so I always find that hard to believe). But the story goes they purchase the iPad to later find out it was a great mistake, they NOW have a Surface Pro or some other "Windows" hybrid tablet that serves all their needs. Sounds like it comes directly from Microsoft marketing dept.

    You can go back a decade and find the same niche subset of geek/PC users praising the original tablet PCs for its swivel screens, full Windows, stylus etc. Same as it's being done today. Problem is I still haven't seen any numbers that proves this hybrid all in one tabletPC is a hit with the general consumer.

    Most consumers are not looking for an all in one PC/Tablet hybrid. It still runs into the same problem it did decades ago with form=function. You need larger screens and more power for productivity and smaller screens light weight for consumption. This is why hybrids never took off and I doubt it will now. Using a Surface Pro in bed feels awkward because of its size, weight, aspect ratio.
  • Tablets or iPads are more useful then you think..

    The problem is, not even Microsoft managed to integrate them well with desktops/laptops well. The other problem is desktops still consume a lot of power. Laptops don't consume as much but they still do consume power. Tablets/iPads and smart phones are meant for mobile use. Laptops are meant for heavy resource tasks on the go while desktops are strictly stationary usage. Consumers like the form factor of a tablet and it consumes less power. It also costs less overall and if you use a desktop just to surf the internet or play some of it's less resource necessity games tablets do that job well.

    I'm usually at home so desktops work really well and i use my smart phone when i want to check the internet on the go. I use my laptop when i need something that requires more resources or i am working on a friends computer. Tablets can work great if you just need information on something but i got everything i need at home. I don't yet own a tablet, i would like to have one just to see what it can do, but i don't really need it so i'm not going to get one.
  • 1 device beats several, also no slowdowns!

    Hi :)
    I'm guessing that a lot of times it's easier to carry just 1 device that does almost everyting fairly well rather than to carry tons of separate devices. 1 tablet can replace 3. Phone, ebook reader and most laptop functionality. If you can only afford 1 device then it a pain to use longer-term but at least you're not completely stuck.

    Also they don't seem to slowdown so much or suffer from so many problems. I've seen people start-up their desktop machines and then have to handle tons of pop-ups grumbling about different things. Often desktops that started off being really fast have slowed down so much that it's faster to reach for a tablet and use them for what they can handle instead.

    When desktops slow down so much we tend to blame the user yet the same users are not having the same problems with tablets!
    Regards from
    Tom :)
  • non-Windows

    Hi :)
    Err, non-Windows tablets have proven themselves over the longer-term. We have yet to see how long Windows ones last. My guess is that people buying them will need to replace them as they also suffer slow-downs.

    I think tablet sales may not keep up the furious pace they have in the past because the non-Windows ones just keep working so well and thus seldom need replacing.
    Regards from
    Tom :)