by Davis Rhodes
Think back to 2010. The iPhone 3GS was the latest and greatest in tech; Blackberry still commanded almost 20% of the global smartphone market; and Samsung had just released its first Galaxy phone (and it didn’t have a touchscreen). It’s fair to say that back then, the tech world was a different place. The iPhone had put a computer into consumers’ pockets — how was anyone going to top that?
Steve Jobs and Apple saw a blue ocean strategy they could employ — “put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes.” The iPad. Detractors might argue that Jobs was simply describing a larger iPhone, but when it was released in 2010 it was lauded as the tweener device to solve all of your too-big-for-smartphone-yet-too-little-for-desktop problems. It fit perfectly between the two devices. Apple had struck gold in an untapped blue ocean. Instead of trying to make better computers or better iPhones, they pivoted and did something different.
iPads, and the tablet market as a whole, saw tremendous growth initially. In 2010 just over 10 million units were sold, by 2013 sales eclipsed 78 million units. There were an overwhelming amount of options available to consumers in the tablet market by 2013. iPads remained at the upper price point, but Android devices from Samsung and others could be bought for less than £200. 2013 seems to be the year the market hit maturity — amazing considering the market was nonexistent only 3 years prior. Between 2013 and 2017 tablet sales dropped 33% — highlighting the products early maturity and subsequent decline.
Technology has sped up the product life cycle and rates of diffusion. As quickly as they came, tablets found themselves on the way out. Faster phones and lighter laptops reduced the need to buy a tablet. Is there any space left for tablets to pivot into? Below, we’ll highlight the tablet’s biggest pitfalls and project the future of the product.
Most have an old tablet lying around somewhere at home, but is there an incentive to update it? Most still work well enough to check email, scroll social media and watch Netflix. This presents a massive challenge for companies like Apple and Samsung. Tablets have proven to have longer life cycles than smartphones and consumers aren’t upgrading tablets alongside their phones every 2-3 years. Longer life cycles mean fewer sales, and less of an incentive for consumers to get excited about new tablets.
Smartphones got bigger
The original iPhone had a 3.5 inch screen. To put the number into context, the iPhone X has a 5.8 inch screen. Smartphone screen sizes have ballooned, and tech analysts forecast the 5.5-6 inch range as the “sweet spot” in screen size. Ten inch tablet displays have become a harder sell as consumers are now comfortable watching television shows and movies on their smartphones. The “phablet” sized smartphone is squeezing out the tablet.
Laptops replace desktops
In terms of processing power, laptops are no longer a liability. In 2010, “desktop replacement laptop” was a phrase used to describe only the most beastly laptops. Today, most laptops can handle intensive programs such as Adobe Illustrator without a hiccup. Laptops have enveloped all market space beyond smartphones.
A new USP?
Can tablets find a new unique selling proposition to put themselves back into consumer minds? The basic USP has remained the same since 2010: The smartphone-computer-in-between. As previously mentioned, larger smartphones combined with more powerful laptops have all but dried up this blue ocean. In 2015, Apple released a larger, faster iPad Pro to put some distance between the tablet and larger iPhones. Novel idea, but not exactly a revolutionary pivot for the product.
What we can learn
It may be that tablets were simply a necessary stopgap between smartphones and laptops that technology has outgrown. That doesn’t mean it was a bad product — it just occupied a blue ocean that no longer exists. As technology continues advancing at an exponential pace, we will undoubtedly see more product life cycles like that of the tablet’s. Quick maturity and a more rapidly shrinking market that leads to decline — innovators must adapt to this quick product life cycle and reorient their business models to reflect this new technology market.