Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Smartphones and super-thin laptops eroded the tablet market.

By Barb Darrow
April 11, 2016

Tablet sales have not exactly fallen off a cliff, but they haven’t come close to meeting what now seem to have been over-hyped expectations, as evidenced by a raft of recent stories, in CNET, Re/Code, and elsewhere.

These devices, which let consumers use touchscreens as opposed to keyboards, were supposed to take over the world: They have not done so.

As Re/Code reported, market researcher Gartner predicted five years ago that by 2015, sales of tablets, as exemplified by Apple’s aapl iPad, would surpass 300 million units sold per year. In July, the same company said total tablet sales for 2015 would round out closer to 207 million units, down nearly 6% from the previous year. Whoops.

Gartner competitor IDC reported similar figures for 2015.

Tablets to PCs: RIP

So what the heck happened?

Many say the advent of newer smartphones with bigger, better screens along with improved keypads ate into the core market for tablet users. This is definitely the case for many younger users. But for the more mature cohort of would-be tablet buyers, another force came into play. I, for example, have a now-elderly iPad purchased more than three years ago, which I only use occasionally.

The iPad is slick, but as my last couple of work machines have been either a slim MacBook Air or sorta-slim MacBook Pro (and because the work machine comes everywhere), it’s become the de facto iPad replacement. That’s probably why HP Inc. hpq is touting its new Spectre as the world’s skinniest laptop and Microsoft msft hopes to entrench its Surface Pro and Surface Book in businesses. It’s also probably why Apple responded with iPad Pro.

An iPhone 6 is handy for texting and some email, but the smartphone isn’t something many of my generation will use to say, write stories. We still need a full (or at least full-ish) keyboard. (One former boss is an exception to the generational rule of thumb since he wielded his Blackberry to write entire stories and send out way too many staff emails at 3 a.m., but I digress.)

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The fact is for many in that age group, a tablet plus a thin laptop plus a smartphone is overkill. So the tablet stays at home and gathers dust. It’s possible there are still a ton of vintage iPads doing the same. (My Time Inc. colleague John Patrick Pullen clearly feels the same.)

Now that Gartner and IDC project more aggressive numbers for “detachables“—aka hybrid ultra-mobile devices that are basically tablets with click-on keyboards—it will be interesting to see if those prognostications turn out to be any more accurate than the tablet numbers.

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