The consumer tablet is dying; long live the business tablet

Panos Panay, Microsoft's vice president for Surface Computing, talks about the new Surface Pro 4 tablet during a presentation in New York last fall.
Panos Panay, Microsoft's vice president for Surface Computing, talks about the new Surface Pro 4 tablet during a presentation in New York last fall. AP

Tablets may never again be the consumer sensation they once were, but they are finding new life among professionals.

Apple took aim at that market in announcing a second iPad Pro model this week. Samsung started selling the Windows-based Galaxy TabPro S last week, while Microsoft doubled down on its Surface tablet business last fall with Surface Book, a laptop whose keyboard pops off to leave behind a tablet. Google has its own using Android, the Pixel C.

Unlike early models, these tablets are meant to be used with a physical keyboard and a stylus. That makes them appealing to people looking to get stuff done, whether that’s typing a report or drawing on a graphics app.

“It’s no secret the tablet business has slowed down overall except in places where there’s productivity,” says Gary Riding, a senior vice president for mobile computing marketing at Samsung. (“Productivity,” in this case, being jargon for work as opposed to play.)

These new devices also have higher price tags. Many sell for almost $1,000, or even more with accessories. Companies market them as PC replacements rather than devices for watching video, reading books and playing games — that is, things you can already do with your phone.

The Surface Pro 3 is “much thinner than a laptop, and when you have the case with the keyboard, it’s essentially a laptop,” says Ryan Hastman, who now leaves his Mac laptop behind while traveling to raise money for the University of Alberta in Canada.

Tablet shipments fell 10 percent to 207 million worldwide last year and are projected to fall another 6 percent this year, according to IDC. But one subset —tablets with detachable keyboards — more than doubled to 17 million last year. It’s projected to grow to 64 million in 2020 and represent 30 percent of the overall tablet market, rather than 8 percent now.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” IDC analyst Jitesh Ubrani says.

In a sense, Apple was a victim of its own success following the iPad’s debut in 2010. Tablets took off with consumers who found them appealing replacements for laptops. But people haven’t replaced them as often as phones. And as phones got bigger, some people began wondering whether they needed a tablet at all.

Enter Microsoft, long the king of “productivity” software, which in 2012 designed a tablet that ran Windows and targeted professionals.

It took Microsoft two years to get it right, though. The Pro 3 in 2014 was the first Surface with a fully adjustable kickstand that mimicked the flexibility of laptop screens. And last fall’s models were the first Surface devices with Windows 10.

“Everyone wants a tablet, and everyone needs a laptop,” says Brian Hall, Microsoft’s general manager for Surface. “You can have an approach that says people need to buy one of each, or you can have an approach that says there’s a happy medium.”

But don’t count Apple out. IDC estimates that Apple sold more than 2 million iPad Pros in the holiday quarter when it launched, compared with 1.6 million units for Surface. Apple’s advantage: apps designed from the start for touch screens and battery conservation, rather than ones adapted from the mouse-and-keyboard world of plugged-in Windows PCs.

Now, Apple is giving customers additional choice — a 9.7-inch iPad Pro that starts at $599, $200 cheaper than the 12.9-inch original (add about $250 for the keyboard and stylus).