The Tablet Bubble May Have Burst

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The first tablet I ever owned was one big mess. The Fujitsu Stylistic 500 had a monochrome VGA screen and ran Windows 95 on a 50MHz 486DX2. Predating USB, it was an absolute nightmare getting data on or off the thing, and issues with trying to access the hard disk at a low level eventually drove me to sell it off. Still, I had tasted the allure of the tablet, and I was hooked.

Over the years, PC-based tablets got better and better (and a bit lighter than the Stylistic 500’s 2.6-pound heft), though it was Apple that really shook things up with the first iPad. By shifting tablets from “shrunken-down laptops” to “over-sized smartphones”, it finally created an ecosystem where tablets were light enough, cheap enough, and had enough apps custom-made for touchscreen use to make the purchase seem worthwhile.

My god... it's more bezel than screen...

My god… it’s more bezel than screen…

Since then, we’ve seen mobile platforms from Android to webOS follow suit, and while many of these iPad imitators stumbled along the way, the market quickly matured into delivering a solid selection of well-made devices, any number of which would make buyers infinitely more satisfied than I was with my Fujitsu.

We saw new sectors of the market open up, as smaller, incredibly affordable models like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire arrived, and it seemed like tablets were finally getting their long-overdue moment in the sun.

But now it’s 2013, and despite the arrival of some of the best hardware to date, I can’t help having the feeling that some of the tablet enthusiasm has waned; these great products just aren’t getting the enthusiasm they deserve. That has me wondering: has the tablet bubble finally burst? Did we hit “peak tablet?”

A couple recent headlines caught my eye and got me thinking down this path. One had Apple retail partners slashing prices on the iPad 3 and iPad mini. Usually that just means that new models are coming, but it also brought up memories of the all-too-short-lived iPad 3, so unceremoniously replaced just a few months following its release, like Apple was scrambling to maintain a tenuous hold on the tablet market.

Then there was word of Windows RT tablet prices plummeting across the board, presumably as a consequence of weak sales. That could just be a consequence of shopper attitudes towards the platform in general, but even Android tablets don’t have it easy these days.

For my money, the Sony Xperia Tablet Z is the best Android tablet (heck, tablet period) to come along in months, yet I am just not seeing the sort of enthusiasm for it that I think it warrants. Even the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0, coming from a much better-received brand, seems to be struggling to draw complements more impassioned than “oh, that’s a nice tablet.”

Now, there’s no smoking gun amongst all these circumstantial observations, but I wonder if we haven’t hit a point where tablets are starting to get a bit played-out.

Tablets aren’t like smartphones; most people want a mobile phone, and the issue for manufacturers is convincing them to dump their dumbphone for a smartphone. There are millions upon millions of these new smartphone customers just waiting to be converted.

With tablets, the market’s quite different. Despite what some people might tell you, a tablet is not a replacement for a laptop (at least, not if you’ve been taking full advantage of your laptop) – it’s an extra piece of electronics to add to our repositories. Not everyone’s going to want one, see the appeal, or even be able to afford one. And really, that’s fine.

What I wonder, though, is if we’ve already hit the point where fewer people are making “first tablet” decisions, and so consumer reaction to tablets in general is going to be less about the “wow,” and more about lasting appeal.  What if the primary driving force in the tablet market will be existing owners trading up to new devices? After all, there’s been enough time since the launch of the iPad for you to scratch that tablet itch if you’ve felt it, and with the way prices have been falling, I suspect that a good number of potential tablet customers have already taken the dive.

What if that is true? Really, it could be good for tablet fans. We might just start seeing a tablet renaissance, where manufacturers start taking a step back and going for more refined designs, like the sort of movement we’re seeing over with smartphones and camera technology.

Maybe I’m way off with this feeling, and tablet sales will continue to move forward unabated. What do you think, at least? Has the first big wave of tablet enthusiasm already passed, or are we just getting started?

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!