Tablet Sales Slowdown Reveals Limits to Today's Devices

NEWS ANALYSIS: The limits to what you can use a tablet for and relatively high prices have put the brakes on tablet sales growth. Worse, there's not much really new on the horizon.

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...