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Fourth-quarter shipment numbers signal new phase for tablets

While 2014's fourth quarter saw tablet shipments decline, this may simply be a change of gear for the device type.

What exactly is a tablet best for, and where does it fit into the mobile content hierarchy? These are two of the most important questions for developers right now, as such devices continue their uneasy relationship with both PCs and smartphones. Are they a small version of one, a larger version of the other or something else altogether? These factors all play into how much time companies should devote to making their downloads, Web apps and other informational offerings work on tablet-sized screens. The latest numbers may not settle any of the questions once and for all, but they do carry important signals.

The end of an era
As Time recently explained, the growth of the tablet shipments market is finally over. This expansion, which was nothing short of explosive after the announcement of the first iPad, carried the devices into millions of households over the past few years. Time cited a quarterly IDC report for its numbers, explaining that the fourth quarter of 2014 saw 76 million tablets go out. That same period in 2013 witnessed shipments of 79 million. This represents a year-over-year decline, and Time stated that it is the first such decrease the market has experienced. Should this be taken as a sign that tablets are losing their cultural relevance? The answer is not so clear.

Individuals want mobile computing devices, that much is evident. However, the exact size of these items is in question. Time cited the rise of large phones as one of the forces cutting into tablet shipments. Content professionals may only have to adjust their offerings slightly to turn them from tablet-optimized information into "phablet" materials. Another factor, one that has been named in previous discussions of the tablet space, is the tendency to hold onto tablets when phones are often traded in every few years due to phone company offers. No phone plans means less incentive to flip a tablet for the latest model.

The future is also not as gloomy as the fourth quarter seems to indicate. Time noted an IDC prediction that between the anticipated release of Windows 10 devices and a fleet of new slates with huge screens, 2015 will be a year of market growth. In fact, when 2014 is considered as a whole, the tablet space did expand. This persistence means that, despite its landmark status, the decline of tablet shipments in 2014's final quarter is not a sure sign of the format's demise. Things are changing, but market-watchers will have to stay tuned to see how.

Apple scales up
A host of exciting hardware rumors are currently circulating about the next stage in Apple's iPad evolution. TechRadar speculated that the next Apple tablet may sport a 12.9-inch screen, placing it squarely in the category of large devices that Time expects to boost sales in 2015. The source suggested that insiders may have found out the name for the new offering - iPad Plus. Considering the impact of the iPhone 6 Plus, it might be a savvy move. TechRadar explained that such a device would be an intuitive expansion of the current branding approach. Of course, power comes at a cost and the news provider speculated that any huge iPad would be enterprise-focused in its expense.

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