A third of American adults now own tablet computers

If you thought you were seeing tablet computers everywhere, you were right. Over a third of Americans now own a tablet and more are buying them every day.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Does it seem like everyone you know is getting a tablet computer? There's a reason for that. They have been. Tablets are getting more popular than ever. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, over a third of American adults now own a tablet.


By Pew's latest survey numbers, "A third (34%) of American adults ages 18 and older own a tablet computer like an iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab, Google Nexus, or Kindle Fire—almost twice as many as the 18% who owned a tablet a year ago."

While tablet computers aren't new, their popularity only dates back to April 3, 2010 when Apple introduced the iPad. By May 2010, older tablets and the iPad reached 3% of the adult market. Not three years later, the number of tablet owners has increased eleven-fold.

Who are these people? Pew's numbers reveal few surprises:

  • Demographic groups most likely to own tablets include:
  • Those living in households earning at least $75,000 per year (56%), compared with lower income brackets
  • Adults ages 35-44 (49%), compared with younger and older adults
  • College graduates (49%), compared with adults with lower levels of education

The Pew survey did find one oddity: "Unlike smartphones, which are most popular with younger adults ages 18-34, we see the highest rates of tablet ownership among adults in their late thirties and early forties. In fact, almost half (49%) of adults ages 35-44 now own a tablet computer, significantly more than any other age group. Adults ages 65 and older, on the other hand, are less likely to own a tablet (18%) than younger age groups." In other words, when it comes to tablets, Generation X--not the Baby Boomers nor the Millennials, aka Generation Y--are the ones driving tablet sales.

Users are only going to continue to buy tablets in ever greater numbers. Indeed, market research firm NPD claims that by 2017, tablets will outsell notebooks by six to one.  Today, IDC has found that global tablet shipments grew by 142.4-percent year-over-year during the first quarter of 2013, and that "tablets have shown no sign of slowing down."

A big part of what's driving this explosive growth, according to IDC, are inexpensive Android devices with screen sizes of about 7 inches. Looking ahead, IDC predicts that smaller tablets, such as the Nexus 7 and the Apple iPad mini, will have 63% of the market by 2017.

At the same time, PC sales continue to head into the toilet. Indeed, by IDC's count the last sales quarter, global PC shipments have plunged into their worst drop in a generation.

It's no wonder that Microsoft appears to be aiming Windows 8.1 at tablets and other mobile devices rather than making disgruntled Windows 8 desktop users happy. The future belongs to tablets. 

Which tablets are people buying? Pew doesn't look into this, but many other research firms follow this. ABI Research states that "The tide is definitely turning toward Android-based tablets, though Apple will not slouch as it feels the competition approaching."

IDC found that Android-based tablets are already edging ahead of iPads, 48.8-percent to 46-percent. ABI Research senior practice director Jeff Orr wouldn't go that far but he would say, "It's inevitable that Android tablets will overtake iOS-powered slates, though we see no single vendor challenging Apple’s dominance anytime soon."

As for would-be challengers to Android and Apple, there really aren't any. Microsoft with Windows 8 and RT is the closest thing to a viable alternative, but even combined their sales lag far behind tablet market leaders, Apple, Samsung, ASUS, and Amazon.

We're well on our way to a world where tablets, and not PCs, will be the most popular computing device and the real battle for market supremacy will be between Apple and Google's Android allies. No one else at this point—Firefox, Microsoft, Ubuntu—appear to be in the running for top tablet honors.

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