Tablet sales dive, but Windows might just ride to the rescue

Apple and Samsung tablet sales have declined, but the market may bounce back with help from Microsoft.

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3
Microsoft's Surface Pro 3

It's official: tablets are on the slide. First analysts IDC and now Canalys have pointed to a slowdown in slate sales in the final quarter of last year.

According to Canalys, worldwide tablet shipments slid 12 percent year-on-year to 67 million in the fourth quarter of 2014. Industry watcher IDC has also said the tablet market declined in the last quarter of last year, although it calculated the drop to be smaller, at 3.2 percent.

Tablet leader Apple's year-on-year iPad shipments declined by 18 percent according to Canalys, while second-placed Samsung could not replicate its tablet success of Q4 2013, seeing a decline of 24 percent to 11 million units.

The modern tablet market is only five years old and is still changing rapidly. It's not clear how often consumers will want to replace these devices, for example: at the moment it looks as though tablet turnover is slower than smartphones but quicker than PCs. And while the PC was once thought to be dead and buried, hybrid and two-in-one notebooks are making gains.

In addition to the slowdown at the top of the tablet market, the low end, mostly comprising 7-inch Android devices, also suffered significant declines: this sector has been hit hard by the growth of giant-screen smartphones - a.k.a. 'phablets' - and what Canalys described as "intense price competition", which has vaporised margins.

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Tim Coulling, senior analyst at Canalys, said it was always going to be tough for Apple to repeat its stellar performance of the last quarter of 2013, when it introduced the iPad Air. Even so, Apple's tablets still accounted for 30 percent of the market in the quarter, he said, "and the strength of its ecosystem is helping it weather the storm in an increasingly competitive market".

In contrast, Coulling said Samsung will need to streamline its portfolio and improve channel management if it's to hold onto its market share in 2015. However, reflecting how fluid the tablet market is, all the other major players, including Amazon, Lenovo, HP, and Microsoft, all saw sales grow.

The tablet market continues to twist and turn: IDC expects to see some growth in the tablet market this year thanks to Windows 10 and larger tablets. Fellow analyst Gartner also expects eight percent growth in tablet sales this year.

For its part, Canalys predicts that growth is likely to come in 8-inch-plus tablets and Windows tablets, which saw shipments hit six million in the fourth quarter of 2014, to just over nine percent market share.

Microsoft's own-branded devices accounted for just over a third of worldwide shipments of Windows tablets as Surface Pro 3 sales continued to gain momentum.

Still, Apple is unlikely to give up market share without a fight: its recent deal with IBM could provide new gains in the business market, where tablets are still to make a significant impact. And if rumours of a bigger-screened 'iPad Pro' prove true, that would also give the company a boost.

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