First, some perspective: the tablet industry is still huge. Gartner predicts that over 250 million tablets will ship worldwide by the end of 2014, an impressive figure for any consumer electronics device not named “smartphone.”
But there’s reason for tablet makers to be worried. Sales are “crashing” at Best Buy and iPad sales are down year-over-year, a disappointing reversal after three years of explosive growth.
Whether it’s a sign of doom or just a “speed bump,” something, on some level, is wrong. Let’s break down five possible explanations:
1. Nobody knows what tablets are for
Is the tablet a leisure device? A personal assistant? A workstation? It’s difficult to say. For marketers, the latest craze is productivity. The Surface 3 can replace your laptop. The iPad is for climatologists and marine biologists. The Samsung Galaxy Pro is for taking business notes and organizing files. But does anyone actually want all this stuff in a tablet?
Probably not. Nearly all of the best-selling tablets on Amazon are small-screen, budget options, with productivity features ratcheted down…or even stripped out. And the proudly efficient Surface is still a billion-dollar bust. Despite all the ads, spreadsheets and styluses, tablet owners still seem to prefer browsing Pinterest to building PowerPoints.
Put it all together, and first-time tablet buyers are simply going to be confused. They probably don’t care much about efficiency, but every manufacturer is spending millions convincing them to get a tablet for expense reports and file management. What a mess.
2. Phablets, not tablets, are the sweet spot
The first iPad (2010) fit neatly between contemporary devices: it was more roomy than phones, but not as clunky as laptops—the perfect product for reading books or surfing the web after work. What’s more, phones above 4.5-inches were virtually non-existent, making a tablet’s 7- to 10-inch screen a big selling point.
Jump ahead to 2014, and the average phone is faster, smarter and most importantly, bigger. Over 80% of 2014’s new phones have screens over 4.5 inches, and the flagship models tend to be the biggest of all. The tablet’s biggest differentiator has faded, while the phablet has grabbed more market share and garnered increasingly glowing reviews. It’s just not worth snapping up a new Nexus tablet when your LG G3 is almost as big and twice as convenient.
3. Old models are good enough
When it comes to upgrading your tablet, what’s the better analogy: the smartphone or the TV? Three years ago, the phone was the obvious answer. After all, tablets looked and operated a lot like the smaller device, sharing the same apps, layouts and operating systems. Surely customers would upgrade their tablets once every two years or so, just like their Galaxies, iPhones and Nokias.
Given the benefit of time, however, the picture has become more clear. Consumers drop their phones regularly; tablets sit safely on the bedside table. Smartphone batteries go through hundreds of recharge cycles per year; tablet batteries go through only dozens. Users fill their phones with photos, apps and bloatware; tablet owners add only the occasional movie or game. At the 24-month mark, smartphone are chipped, cracked, bursting with data and barely able to hold a charge. Meanwhile, tablets often look like they just came out of the box. Like a TV, there’s no real incentive to get a new model until something truly special comes along.
As a result, the refresh cycle for a tablet is much closer to that of a television than a smartphone: four or more years for most customers. If you’re not a tech geek or millionaire, you’re not buying a tablet every other year…which means declining sales for tablet makers.
4. The apps aren’t good enough
The tablet’s saving grace was supposed to be the apps: games, photo editors and productivity suites designed for tablets—and only for tablets—from the ground up. Even if the phone would become the dominant device, customers wouldn’t be able to resist the perks of having bigger, tablet-exclusive applications.
Unfortunately, almost all the best apps are already available on phones, and in some cases, only on phones. Developers have discovered that the only way to compete with such low prices (say, $0.99 or $1.99) is to produce at a mass volume, and the only device capable of selling in mass volume is the smartphone. A few noble development teams have continued to support advanced tablet versions out of principle, but increasingly, it’s a bad business decision. So we end up with blurry, up-scaled interfaces or basic layouts optimized for phones and hastily ported to tablets. It’s a lost opportunity.
5. Lack of competition for Apple
Every year, the smartphone industry only seems to get more competitive, with Apple holding onto the high-end, Samsung clinging to the middle and upstarts like Xiaomi snapping up customers in the budget market. Even if you’re willing to say that Google is winning by market share, or Apple by profits, you have to admit that it’s still a fierce battle, with dozens of flagship phones contending for the crown.
With tablets, however, Apple is still winning handily, shipping 75% more devices than its closest competitor (Samsung) and hogging all the profits. The iPad remains king, despite an ongoing assault of giant Galaxy Pros and Microsoft Surface ads. In order for the industry to avoid stagnation, Apple’s rivals need to make the iPad maker less comfortable. Judging from the iPad Mini 3 non-update, however, they’ve got a ways to go. They’d better hurry, though: the tablet market just might depend upon it.
This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.
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