Easing off the tablets

Smartphones and tablets sitting on top of a laptop

Inside the enterprise: Over the last few years, sales of PCs, both laptops and desktops, have been in decline. Depending on your point of view, that decline has either been caused by, or offset by, growing sales of tablet devices.

The data takes a little unpicking. Over the last decade we have seen a steady decline in the sale of conventional desktop computer systems, at least in Western markets. As laptops became more affordable and more powerful, more companies started to switch to laptops for a larger number of workers, and in some cases, for most workers.

But the economic downturn appeared to cause an across the board halt in computer sales overall, including laptops.

Companies stretched their IT budgets by deferring upgrades; uncertainties about operating systems and among some users and IT teams, an outright dislike of Windows 8 prompted companies to stick with Windows 7 and machines that were, largely, still good enough.

The growth in the personal computing sector, where there was growth at all, seems to have come from tablets. Undoubtedly some companies issued tablets instead of laptops. Others will have offered them to staff as an additional device.

And some growth will certainly have come from BYOD (bring your own device) programmes. Whilst firms teased out an extra year or two of life from their laptops, staff were allowed, and often even encouraged, to bring in a shiny tablet instead. Tablets were the future of the personal computing industry, it seemed.

Has that trend now gone into reverse? Some analyst research suggests it might. Market watchers are split in how they measure tablet sales. Some count them in with laptops. Others split them out as a separate category. And with the growth of large-screen smartphones or phablets, it is of course hard to draw a clear line.

A flattening of tablet sales is no real surprise. The novelty factor has worn off, and it is hard to see where the next great innovation in tablet computers will come from.

None the less, some of the statistics make for interesting reading, at least for CIOs looking at their organisatons' personal device policies.

According to analysts Canalys, worldwide tablet sales fell five per cent to just under 50m units in the second quarter of this year. The firm put the decline down to falling sales by the sector's two market leaders: Apple and Samsung. Between them, Canalys calculates the two firms make up 46 per cent of the global tablet market.

A flattening of tablet sales, at this stage in their product life cycle, is no real surprise. The novelty factor has worn off, and it is hard to see where the next great innovation in tablet computers will come from. The latest tablets, such as the iPad Air, are capable devices, but there is a limit to how far manufacturers can go in making their devices thinner and lighter.

"A slowdown in the pace of innovation is creating an issue for tablet vendors. The tablet market has quickly found itself in the same position the notebook market was in some years ago, with minimal increases in hardware performance forming the basis for an argument to upgrade," suggests Canalys analyst Tim Coulling.

PCs, though, have done better, and less because of hardware innovation than because of falling prices. Dell, HP, Lenovo and Apple have seen computer shipments increase. This, in turn, has been driven by improving economic conditions, but also falling laptop prices.

In fact, with the gap between laptop and tablet prices narrowing, it will be interesting to see how that affects user choice. Some people who may have chosen a tablet because it was cheaper might now opt for a touch-screen laptop instead. Tablet makers will need to respond with innovation or price cuts of their own.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.