Will smartphones make tablets obsolete?

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Sales of the iPad were down 19% from the last quarter and 9% year-over-year. If iPad sales are dropping, what hope do other tablet makers have?Sales of the iPad were down 19% from the last quarter and 9% year-over-year. If iPad sales are dropping, what hope do other tablet makers have?

oon yeoh By Oon Yeoh

Do you remember the PDA (personal digital assistants)? They were all the rage at one time. I bought quite a few models in my time. Yes, I used to own a Palm Pilot, a Sony Clie, a Handspring. They were very handy, practical devices.

Then they went extinct. Why? Because mobile phones evolved into smartphones that could do everything a PDA could and more. Will the mobile phone, which are growing bigger and bigger in size, do the same thing to tablets? If recent iPad sales figures are anything to go by, the answer would be: Quite possibly so.

As has been widely reported, the sales of the iPad were down 19% from the last quarter and 9% year-over-year. Those are not good figures for a product that is a market leader. If iPad sales are dropping, what hope do other tablet makers have?

Apple CEO Tim Cook stoically told investors, “This isn’t something that worries us,” because its recently forged partnership with IBM to sell its devices to IBM’s corporate customers will help boost future sales of the iPad.

Perhaps, but there is another problem looming and that problem comes from within the company. Apple is widely expected to launch a big-sized iPhone soon, possibly as early as September. Nobody really knows for sure but some media reports have speculated it could be as big as 5.5 inches.

That might seem normal for Samsung phone owners who are used to monster-sized devices but for the typical iPhone owner, who’s used to a 4-inch device, this is a huge leap. It turns the iPhone into a phablet – a cross between a phone and a tablet that’s dangerously close to the size of an iPad Mini.

With a phone that big and capable of doing almost everything an iPad and an iPad Mini can do, is there a need to buy such tablets anymore?

I own an iPad. I don’t use it much except to occasionally read an e-book or to watch a video clip. I also own a hybrid convertible tablet/laptop that runs on Windows 8. I estimate 95% of the time, it’s in laptop mode. The only times I use it in tablet mode is when I want to show a sample of an e-book to a prospective author.

Why is that so? It’s because a tablet can never beat a laptop when it comes to productivity. This is something I’ve written about in the past. I’m hardly the only tech columnist who has commented on this.

Slate’s William Oremus recently commented that as great as the iPad is for watching movies on a plane or check e-mail over breakfast, “it still can’t match the power and versatility of a desktop or laptop as a primary workstation.”

He goes on to add that for most people, these limitations consign the iPad to “third device” status behind the smartphone and the PC. “And it shouldn’t be surprising that not everyone needs or can afford a third device—especially one as dear as Apple’s,” he says.

It’s worth noting that both Mac sales and iPhone sales are growing. It’s only the iPad, the so-called “third device” that people don’t really need, that’s seeing a decline in sales.

I don’t think this is a one-off phenomenon but rather, a trend that will continue in the foreseeable future, especially if Apple hops on the “big phone” bandwagon.

What does this mean for tablets? Will they go the way of the Dodo bird and the PDA?

I doubt they will completely disappear but I think the days of tablets as standalone devices are numbered. They might still exist but they will likely be in the form of either a phablet (a super-sized phone) or a full-sized tablet hybrid that can convert into a laptop for heavy-duty work. Just you wait and see.

Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.

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