Tablet Sales Slowdown Reveals Limits to Today's Devices

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2014-05-05

Tablet Sales Slowdown Reveals Limits to Today's Devices

I remember the decided lack of excitement when I walked into the T-Mobile store in Fairfax, Va., to buy my iPad Air back in November.

I wanted the new version partly because I needed T-Mobile's ability to work anywhere in the world and partly because I feel the need to stay up-to-date with the technology I write about. But there was little excitement about replacing my old third-generation iPad.

Most people with iPads don't have the same motivations I did. Their fourth-generation iPad is not much different from the one I bought. The new features are at best minor improvements, and while the 64-bit processor may one day make a difference, it doesn't offer much right now.

This is, I suspect, a feeling shared by a lot of would-be iPad buyers, as mentioned in Michelle Maisto's recent article. The feeling when I bought the new iPad and now that I'm six months into owning it makes me think about the singer Peggy Lee who asks in her sad and sultry voice, "Is that all there is?"

Because the iPad is so unabashedly a consumer device, the limits to its usefulness as a business tool become obvious sooner than they might in another device. The iPad Air I bought is thin and light—and fragile. I have to encase it in a plastic shell to protect it, and in the process that makes it less thin and light. While this works just fine for the times I want to use the iPad, such as when I'm taking interview notes or reading books on an airplane trip, they don't work so well in a business environment.

But for the most part, that's been an issue with tablets generally and helps explain why the rate of increase in sales has dropped off. Tablets, unfortunately, do only one thing really well.

They provide a convenient surface for the consumption of information in places where you can't use a computer so easily and for situations where a smartphone isn't big enough to work well. But right now, that's all there is, as Ms. Lee would say.

Complicating the sales picture, especially for Apple, is that the differences between an iPad version 1 and the iPad Air that I'm currently using are relatively small. Most of what I can do with the iPad Air, I can do with the first-generation iPad. The biggest difference is that the new tablet will connect to T-Mobile's LTE network.

Tablet Sales Slowdown Reveals Limits to Today's Devices

My first iPad was WiFi-only. But the old first-generation iPad will still let me take notes with Evernote. The Amazon Kindle app works just as well, and I can play music on either one.

The reason I upgraded to a new tablet has little to do with the new iPad's capabilities beyond its support for LTE, and in reality I don't really need a new iPad for that. So what does the iPad need? What do tablets in general need to attract customers at a greater rate?

To attract business customers, tablets, including the iPad, need to support the needs of business rather than forcing business users make concessions to the device's functional limits. While there are certainly plenty of iPads in use in corporate environments, it's not always a happy marriage.

Apple iPads lack the ruggedness and serviceability that business users expect. Especially in a sales floor, warehouse or manufacturing environment where a tablet could be a natural fit, consumer tablets simply aren't up to the task.

There are, of course, a few tablets and tablets with detachable keyboards that are aimed at business users. Some of these devices can be serviced on-site; they are relatively rugged, meaning they're not slim and light, and for the most part, they run Windows 8.1 Pro.

By using a professional version of Microsoft Windows, these tablets give business users the security they need and the application support they want. While Microsoft Office is now available for the iPad, it's always been available for Windows and with the Windows tablets, you can print to any printer in the enterprise.

Of course, even if the uptake in business use were to grow substantially, it wouldn't necessarily be enough to kick start tablet sales. What's needed there as many observers have noted is something more. There needs to be a useful new feature that makes business users suddenly decide in mass that they need to upgrade.

Unfortunately, it's not clear what that something might be. Right now, tablets are a sort of technological one-trick pony. They do what they do nicely, but that's all that they do. While you can force a tablet into new roles, that doesn't make it a happy fit.

The result is what you see; users have the one tablet they need and won't buy another unless there's something such as support for LTE that makes them want to spend the money. But it needs to be something bigger than just better radios.

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