Peak tablet? Holiday season slate sales decline from last year

The tablet market that started in earnest four years ago is stagnant. Amid sluggish growth over the last several quarters, the final three months of 2014 actually saw fewer tablet shipments than the same quarter in the prior year. That’s a first, notes IDC, which published its worldwide tablet shipment figures on Monday.

There were no changes to the top-five vendors, based on IDC’s data. Even with a yearly shipment decline of 17.8 percent, [company]Apple[/company] still shipped at least twice as many tablets as its nearest competitor, Samsung, with Lenovo, Asus and Amazon some distance behind.

IDC says [company]Amazon[/company] actually experienced the largest year-over-year decline in shipments, from 5.8 million tablets shipped in the fourth quarter of 2013 to just 1.7 million last year. It’s worth noting, however, that IDC defines a tablet as having a 7-inch or larger display. As a result, Amazon’s newest slate, the $99 Fire HD 6, isn’t included in the results.

Even with fewer tablets shipped in the final quarter of 2014, overall tablet shipments for the 2014 were a smidgen higher than in 2013: 229.6 million last year compared to 219.9 million in 2013, says IDC.

The yearly figures are probably more indicative of the overall tablet market. As we’ve noted in the past, tablet refresh cycles are longer than smartphone refresh cycles. A good tablet can easily last you three or four years, while smartphones are often replaced in as little as 18 months. Looking at quarterly sales figures, then, doesn’t reflect the longer hardware cycle.

That may be why Apple CEO Tim Cook isn’t publicly concerned with slowing iPad sales. On Apple’s quarterly investor call last week, Cook noted that 90-day measurements won’t show dramatic improvements and that he’s still bullish on tablets in the long run. He also stated that first-time buyer rates are high, accounting for 50 percent of sales in developed markets.

Another development that could be impacting the tablet market is the big uptake of large-screened phones. No, a 5.5-inch handset can’t replicate the experience of a 9.7-inch iPad, but it could displace the sale of a 6- or 7-inch tablet because it’s close enough. As more consumers move to larger handsets, the small tablet market could face additional challenges as a result.