Tablets are the new battleground for smartphone brands

Pandemic-fueled demand brought tablets back under the limelight. But is this growth sustainable?

Tablets are the new battleground for smartphone brands

For quite a while, the Android tablet ecosystem — even if we could call it that — was nothing much to write about. In India, you could only find some middling affordable options, and a few premium options from brands like Samsung. But Apple’s iPads walked away with both the mindshare as well as market share in that category.

Buying an Android tablet was also a painful exercise because you had to either compromise with dated, under-powered options or splurge on fairly expensive devices with limited value. Additionally, Google’s lack of focus on optimising Android made for a poor experience on tablets and augmented the overall disdain for this category. There’s however been a steady change, and it’s thanks to an unexpected contributor – COVID pandemic.

The comeback

The pandemic fueled demand for personal devices, and it was just the stimulus the Android tablet ecosystem needed after an extended limbo of sorts. Apart from the use cases around online education, a tablet is also a handy device to have.

You can watch a bit of Netflix, check your Twitter timeline and emails, read a longform story…you get the drift. When all of us were cooped in at home during the lockdowns necessitated by the pandemic, there were obviously a lot more video calls and binge-watching. Smartphones too can get all this done, but are limited by their screen estate. While a budget laptop isn’t the most portable or convenient device to use when one is on their couch.

Tablets are the new battleground for smartphone brands

Late in 2021, realme launched its maiden tablet – realme Pad. While it didn’t disrupt the tablet market in terms of pricing or what it offered, it did kick off a juggernaut of sorts in the market. We saw a bunch of brands such as Xiaomi and OnePlus debut their priced Android tables. In essence, smartphone brands thought that the tablet market is ripe for some disruption, and they could piggyback on their success in the smartphone industry.

But it’s not been all plain sailing for brands. In India, affordable tablets – priced between Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 – make up half the market. So, while some brands have made the most of this, the slightly premium tablets have struggled to make a dent in the market.

Market response

Despite the recent interest in the category by several brands and a wide portfolio of tablets in the market, the tablet market is still not quite big and sales are limited. There’s demand for only about half a million devices per quarter – at the peak of the pandemic, it was about 800,000 to 900,000 per quarter.

Samsung continues to lead the tablet market with over 40 per cent market share, followed by Apple with 25 per cent share. Apart from the consumer segment, tablets had a huge commercial ecosystem which made bulk of the volumes for brands like Lenovo. Verticals such as hospitality, banking, healthcare, and education have consistently seen good traction for cellular tablets.

Samsung continues to lead the tablet market, followed by Apple

However, the tablet market is flailing at that end as well. The crash of several ed-tech players has dented volumes of tablets sold, the slowdown in the economy is pushing businesses to cut costs, and new device acquisitions are stalled (not just tablets, the PC sales have also slowed down).

What’s next

A lot of people perceive tablets as companion devices and not laptop replacements. Samsung and Apple, and now Xiaomi and OnePlus, push the narrative of their offering being devices for creation, instead of consumption, but that is a thin plank that works for only a niche audience. Also, considering these are expensive devices, their customer pool is well heeled and owns multiple devices anyway.

During the pandemic, since there was a dearth of cheap laptops in the market, a lot of people picked up tablets for online classes and other work scenarios. However, we are truly out of the pandemic now, and the comeback of tablets happened a tad too late in the pandemic. The tablet market has been steady over the last couple of years after a spike in demand during the first 15 months of the pandemic in 2020.

ALSO READ: Apple iPad vs Android tablet: Which one is for you?

An analyst we spoke to shared his disdain for the new launches, especially the positioning of these tablets, on condition of anonymity. “Why are they launching tablets? Kids are back in school, and nobody’s using Android tablets as replacement for their laptops to do real work.”

However, Neil Shah, vice president at Counterpoint Research, believes that tablets in India are still more than a billion dollar in revenues market per year and since it is more concentrated than the smartphone market, more brands want to enter and remain active to get a slice of the market. There were indeed 21,01,706 tablets sold in India last year, so Shah does have a point…even though almost 14,00,000 of those were from either Samsung or Apple.

Abhishek Baxi is a freelance journalist writing about technology

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