Why tablet sales are falling

Tablet sales have been declining. Some blame encroachment by laptops or encroachment of phablets, or both. Ultimately, the tablet market is indeed becoming saturated, but there is no consensus on precisely why that is. Here is my take.

The tablet market is saturated because tablets are first-class computing devices and few people want an plurality of first-class computing devices in their lives.

In the early 2000s, Microsoft experimented with mobile display panels in a tablet form factor called "Smart Displays." (Smart Displays were distinct from the laptops of that era that ran a pen-enabled version of Windows XP and could transform to a tablet form factor.) The vision for Smart Displays was one of providing access to your desktop computer via Wi-Fi. With poorly executed hardware, short-sighted licensing limitations in Windows XP, immaturity of the RDP protocol, high prices, and essentially no marketing, Smart Displays were a certain failure from the start.

But theirs was a proper trajectory for tablets that has since been lost to history. They existed to bring your singular computing environment to you, wherever you were (in Wi-Fi range), in a convenient form factor.

The iPad and virtually all tablets that have appeared since have taken a very different approach of being a stand-alone first-class computing device, with all of the attendant upsides and downsides. These devices exist to (potentially) be everything you need in a computer, and also to associate you with a preferred cloud service provider.

Today, the vendors that build your devices also provide your default cloud services. This is natural given the synergy between selling you devices and coupling those devices with subscription services. But because you may buy one or a dozen devices, each device is designed to assume the worst case: that it's the only device in your life. So every device is a first-class computer vying for your attention. Every device has a collection of installed applications, a local subset of your data, a backlog of notifications it thinks you haven't already seen on other devices, and so on.

On one hand, it is not surprising that Apple and others were able to create a market—a large market—for tablets as first-class computers. Looking past the downside of being yet-another-computer, the execution has been fantastic, often mainstreaming technologies before desktops and laptops. Most poignantly, tablets brought decent touch user interfaces and ultra-high-density displays out of the "phone" space, well before the technologies were available on the desktop. And for some consumers, such as the elderly or the very young, a tablet actually could be a user's singular first-class computer (although in practice, it's generally not since the user's phone is also a computer by the same measure).

But for most of us, a tablet is an accessory to our computing lifestyle and its manifestation as another first-class computing device is a peculiarity at best and a hindrance at worst. No one actually wants to attend to the administrative overhead of another computer, even one that is nominally made easier to manage by way of stripped-down operating systems such as iOS and Android. Incidentally, to a degree, I feel Microsoft's use of full-blown Windows on tablets has hamstrung the adoption of Windows tablets precisely because the notion of another full Windows installation in the household is too much mental burden for most people. Even as a Microsoft fan, I have hesitated to add more Windows tablets to my life because every one of them requires routine maintenance and care.

Tablet sales plateaued because of the friction any consumer feels when they consider buying another tablet: Do I want another computer in my life? At some point, most of us start saying no.

To be clear, this question is often morphed into: Is it time to upgrade my tablet? The implication of that question is: I don't want two tablets, so I would only consider buying another if it were replacing my current tablet.

The problem for tablet manufacturers is that very few people would consider owning two or more tablets. To continue to expand the tablet market, tablets must be convenient—or even desirable—to own in duplicate. The root problem here is that every tablet carries the burden of Yet Another Application Platform Dilemma (YAAPD). Today's tablets are not designed to seamlessly slip into and augment my current computing universe as another portable input/output device.

If each tablet were a portable view on my personal applications, even at $100 or $200 a pop, I would buy several for my household. One in every bedroom, a couple in the family room, one in the office, one in the kitchen, you get the idea. Tablets of this form would feel like collectable accessories that we feel obligated to have in excess, like pens and pencils. Tablets of this form are often depicted in science fiction movies such as Avatar.

I fear Apple and Google are too far down the rabbit hole of habitually steering users to cloud services. They cannot easily switch course toward creating consumer devices that provide portable views on the users' personal applications. This is why I retain hope that Microsoft, in their current efforts to reinvent themselves, will seize the opportunity to be the one industry titan to embrace the emerging demand for a decentralized cloud, where applications exist for their users exclusively and devices exist to provide access to those applications.

The cloud as it exists today is just other peoples' computers, and I already have many computers, too many in fact. I only really want one computer—one set of applications—and a bunch of ways to get to that one computer from anywhere. But it's very important to me that my singular computer is my computer and not yours. Microsoft, are you listening? Please?
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