Freefalling tablet shipments pose no threat to PCs

People still need PC power to do real work

There was a time when market research firms doted on fast rising tablet shipments. The consensus was that tablets would eat away at traditional PC sales until there was nothing left but bones and marrow, but of course we knew better. Now so do the analysts—according to data compiled by IDC, tablet shipments declined 14.7 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2016.

Worldwide shipments reached just 39.6 million units in Q1. IDC shrugged off part of the continued decline to first quarter seasonality, but also noted an “overall disinterested customer base.” It’s the sixth consecutive quarter that tablet shipments have fallen.

IDC counts both traditional slates and detachables like Microsoft’s Surface Pro line as detachables. However, it’s the slate-style tablets that are in freefall mode. Slates account for the vast majority of the entire tablet market, but they just can’t compete with high-end PCs like gaming systems or even general purpose PCs. As a result, tablets are being relegated to the low-end of the market.

The same situation is playing out in the detachables market. Tablets with detachable keyboards actually experienced triple-digit year-over-year growth, albeit on shipments that only totalled 4.9 million units. Nevertheless, that’s an all-time high in the first quarter of a calendar year, and it shows that the only tablets customers are now interested in are the ones that also function as a laptop. Microsoft can be thanked for that.

“Microsoft arguably created the market for detachable tablets with the launch of their Surface line of products," said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst with IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers. "With the PC industry in decline, the detachable market stands to benefit as consumers and enterprises seek to replace their aging PCs with detachables.

The rise in popularity of detachables has drawn the attention of mobile-first vendors like Samsung and Huawei. However, their focus on mid-range price points isn’t proving fruitful—customers in need of higher performing solutions are looking at Surface-like devices, while everyone else flocks to the low end.

So what’s the takeaway? We can finally put to rest the notion that tablets will cannibalize PCs.

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