Mint Explainer: Why tablets failed to do what they promised—kill basic laptops

Earlier this month, Apple released an artificial intelligence-focused iPad Pro and a larger iPad Air, aiming to reinvigorate a tablet lineup that has languished over the past two years. (Bloomberg)
Earlier this month, Apple released an artificial intelligence-focused iPad Pro and a larger iPad Air, aiming to reinvigorate a tablet lineup that has languished over the past two years. (Bloomberg)


  • Amid falling tablet sales, Apple last month claimed that its latest tablet is just as good as its latest entry-level laptop. We’ve heard such claims before too, but it hasn’t exactly been success galore for tablets as a category.

Early in May, Apple, the world’s second most-valuable company, launched a new iPad Pro lineup of tablets. One of the most notable factors was its claim on the new tablet—with the latest processor, Apple said the tablet was as good as its entry-level laptops. This, though, was hardly a first—for years, brands have been claiming that tablets are almost ready to replace bulky, heavy budget laptops with their slim profile and equivalent productivity.

But this said claim hasn’t quite worked out. A Mint poll of four analysts, based on market researcher IDC India’s 2023 annual PC shipments data, estimated around 1.2 million tablets to have been shipped last year. This figure has remained stagnant—even as laptops saw a boost driven by the covid-19 pandemic’s work-from-home era.

Why, though, did the claims not work out? Is there still time, or have tablets decidedly failed to do what they promised—take over the segment of mainstream laptops? Mint decodes.

First, was this the tablet’s main claim?

This can be subjective. The primary claim of tablets was a larger display that could boost various entertainment and productivity use-cases. Over the years, companies such as Apple, Google, Lenovo and Samsung figured there was an opportunity to create slim devices that could replace the mainstream personal computer.

This largely became possible as mobile chipsets, which offer the performance inside, became more powerful—thus enabling a wider variety of tasks to be performed. Cooling systems also became more streamlined, which meant that a slim device could hold enough power to run desktop PC-grade software.

The first example of such a hybrid experience in the mainstream consumer electronics industry was the Microsoft Surface—a tablet that ran a limited edition of the Windows 8 desktop operating system.

What is Apple’s claim?

During its 7 May product launch, Apple not only unveiled the iPad Pro with a new processor, but also a keyboard attachment and a new stylus with haptic feedback. According to the company, this ensemble made Apple’s flagship tablet “just as good as a MacBook". 

The claim mirrored Apple’s attempts to place its top-drawer iPads as potential laptop killers—because of which the company has even segregated the iPadOS operating system since 2019, and launched keyboard covers with trackpads, and more. 

This has only grown further this year with improvements to the products, although Apple’s laptop replacement claims were reserved only for its Pro tablets.

Apple’s strategy has been to create a single ecosystem where every device works with each other. One of its features, called ‘Universal Control’, lets users control a tablet from a MacBook laptop. With each of these features, Apple maintains that an iPad isn’t quite a ‘replacement’ for a MacBook—but a companion.

But industry experts observe that the ‘companion’ strategy may not quite have worked. In the past three quarters, Apple has reported consecutive year-on-year sales declines of 10%, 15% and 16% respectively for the iPad globally. This shows that there clearly is a problem.

Why are brands trying to merge tablets and laptops?

For long, industry consultants have noted a strategic market gap. Entry-level laptops are typically bulkier, or come with basic performance chops. Tablets, once paired with a keyboard and trackpad, could have been the solution here—with a slim profile and capable processing power. 

A more premium-end use case has already been seen with convertible laptops, which use desktop-grade chips and levy a premium due to design. If this model is successfully copied at scale in the entry-level price ranges, the consumer PC space could go through a considerable shake-up. Over the past decade, this is why brands have tried to build this narrative.

Also, with the advent of artificial intelligence, multimodal has become key. Tablets are inherently well-designed to support inputs through a full-sized physical keyboard, a touchscreen, a stylus, voice or even gestures. Going forward, being able to do so could be crucial.

Have other brands also made similar claims?

Samsung’s ‘Dex’ mode offered a merged vision for any mobile form factor to work as a laptop replacement, thanks to software smarts and external keyboards or mice. But Dex was a mode, which meant that it wasn’t a specific innovation that changed how tablets worked. As with every software innovation, there is a clear roadblock that if developer support does not build up, the software ecosystem fails. So far, Dex hasn’t exactly taken off.

Microsoft’s Surface line, too, offers a similar experience, but the devices are better known as convertible laptops since they run on desktop-grade processors and software. The company has of late segregated laptops and tablets with a new ‘Surface Laptop’ lineup. But Microsoft’s devices have struggled to attract mainstream popularity, especially in India—which is a highly value-sensitive market.

Google, too, created a big push for tablet adaptability with ‘desktop mode’ on one of the world’s most recognisable browsers, Chrome. However, while some pages do load well, the feature isn’t universally seamless.

So what are the key issues?

The biggest roadblock has been software innovation. Most tablet-laptop hybrid form factor innovation started from the top-down, meaning that only the premium-end benefitted. We’re yet to see a sweet middle spot in software design that would work for both tablets and laptops. Apple’s iPadOS comes close, but is inherently closer to iOS than MacOS, which is meant for desktop PCs.

This has put buyers away from replacing their laptops with tablets. Concerns have also remained regarding longevity—mobile devices are typically seen to have shorter life cycles than desktop-class ones. Tablets are not immune from this, and brands haven’t alleviated this concern as yet.

Pricing, meanwhile, is a big challenge. For instance, Apple’s new MacBook-rivalling iPad Pro is priced upward of 100,000—a figure that is too steep if one is to think of tablets replacing mainstream work and study laptops. Apple’s own MacBook Air, with retailer and bank discounts, currently sells in India at around the same price. And given that the latter runs on Apple’s full-scale MacOS, it’s hard to recommend to a mainstream user.

Do tablets really have a big future?

Barring a one-time fillip from the covid-19 pandemic, the tablet market has been shrinking, or remained stagnant at best. The Mint poll of four analysts estimated that tablet shipments dropped 12% last year, and could drop even further.

Despite the weakness, though, tablets may not entirely die out. Budget tablets find use cases in rural education initiatives, or government divisions for various purposes. This might give select brands a good-enough reason to consider innovating with tablet software interfaces. With hardware already supporting the tablet/laptop hybrid form factors, user interface innovation can bridge the gap between entry-level laptops and tablets.

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