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Is the Tablet Market Saturated?

There’s so much wacky talk about tablets, iOS, Android, Apple, Samsung and sometimes the Microsoft Surface that it’s hard to keep pace with it all. First, tablets were on the ascent, rapidly soaring past PC sales. After all, PC sales were yesterday’s news. But now we have yet another projection from industry analyst IDC that maybe tablets are going to be slightly less popular than expected.

Now understand that anyone who does long range forecasts is apt to have a spotty record, and IDC gets things wrong from time to time, sometimes badly wrong. But I suppose some of these predictions are based on the fact that Apple didn’t sell as many iPads in the last financial quarter as in the previous year.

Of course, it’s also true that Apple was riding on the introduction of a new iPad lineup in 2012, whereas the last iPad refresh dates back to last fall. So, given the usual industry and sales trends, you can expect iPad demand to have fallen ahead of expected new products some time this fall.

But not on September 10, since the people who seem to know about such matters say it won’t happen so early.

In any case, the new IDC forecast is slightly lower than the previous one, with projected 2013 sales of 227.4 million units as compared to 229.3 million in the previous estimate.

Key reasons are, they say, the encroachment of phablets — “tweener” tablets with built in phones that are larger than smartphones but smaller than regular tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note series — and wearables. Did I say wearables?

Yes, it’s clear that Samsung is prepping a smartwatch for early September release, Sony will expand their smartwatch lineup, and others are entering the game. But it’s not at all clear Apple is among them. More to the point, there’s little or no evidence yet that, despite the growing number of wearables in this space, people even care. But we’re only talking about two million fewer sales here, so maybe it’s not so big a deal.

As to those  phablets, I suppose there is a decent demand for them, and for larger smartphones, although Apple has demonstrated no interest in either market, at least not yet.

When it comes to tablets, IDC is also speculating that the average selling price is going to decrease. All right, nothing surprising about that, since there are more and more so-called “white box” tablets that you can buy in developing countries real cheap. Of course, you also get a cheap experience, meaning they may not hold up so well over the long haul. It’s also clear that not very many people seem to be using non-Apple tablets to get online.

Take that recent number cited by Tim Cook and others, that some 84% of tablet-based Web traffic comes from iPad users. Since the iPad gets roughly a third of the market nowadays, this wouldn’t seem to make sense. Or maybe people buy those other tablets, finding they don’t work so well, decide to return them or stick them in a closet never to use them again.

Of course, getting subpar gear doesn’t just hurt the product’s maker. It may influence someone’s future purchase decision about such gear, assuming that lousy experiences are just par for the course. The reports about serious teething pains with the latest Google Nexus 7 tablet don’t help either, though it’s reported Google is trying to fix the “crazy” touchscreen and other issues that have confounded users.

It’s also a well known fact that many Android developers tend to cheap out when it comes to optimizing their apps for tablets. So you have a simple scaling of content rather than reorienting it, and adding stuff to make it look better on the larger display, not to mention working more efficiently. Certainly that adds to the inferior user experiences that might deter people from using tablets, and maybe eventually deciding not to buy them.

You see, in the real world, rather than our tiny closed corner of the universe, regular customers don’t really see the differences in tablets that we do. Android and iOS tablets kind of and sort of look pretty much the same externally. Sure, iOS and Android are different in look and feel, but not so different when examined casually.

So a poorly functioning tablet is simply a bad advertisement for the entire market. Yes, people might give up on Android and switch to an iPad. Or they might decide that, since they are already used to those clunky old PCs, might as well stick with something that continues to work pretty well. And that means the one they have. No sense upgrading.

I suppose a phablet might be a smaller, more convenient alternative for some, but it only seems to offer a larger screen over a regular smartphone as the only perceived advantage. But that might grab a few sales from the tablet space. As to wearables, the jury is still out on whether there’s any potential. But with many expecting an iWatch some time in the future, I suppose some makers are trying to head Apple off at the pass. But that doesn’t mean there’s a market for those things yet.