Tablet sales growth is declining, and Apple is selling fewer iPads every quarter. PC sales are improving. Ever-larger smartphones make great consumption devices. Microsoft has even realized Windows should be a desktop operating system, because PCs aren’t going anywhere.

Tablets used to seem like the future. Everyone would abandon laptops and desktops — or, at least, everyone would have a smartphone, a tablet, and a PC. But tablets are now looking more like a niche product.

Tablet Sales vs. PC Sales – Hard Data

RELATED: Are PCs Dying? Of Course Not, Here's Why

When we explained why PCs aren’t dying, we noted that tablet sales were growing slower than ever, while the PC’s decline was slowing down. Now, we can look at the latest data:

  • Tablet sales are growing more slowly, according to Gartner’s October 2014 figures. In 2013, tablet sales were up 55 percent from 2012. In 2014, they were up just 11 percent from 2013. (Source)
  • iPad sales are declining, according to Apple’s Q3 2014 numbers. iPad sales declined 19 percent from the previous quarter and nine percent from the previous year. (Source)
  • PC sales are recovering, according to Gartner’s July 2014 figures. PC sales were up 0.1 percent in Q2 2014 from Q2 2013. It’s a small increase, but the trends are clear — PCs are trending up, and tablets are trending down. The PC’s downward slide seems over. (Source)

Smartphones Are Pushing Out Tablets

Smartphone screen sizes are increasing every year. Android phones have been growing larger and larger for years, and Microsoft’s Windows Phones have followed suit. Even Apple could no longer resist the trend — the iPhone suddenly grew larger with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. (And, if there was any doubt, all the data shows smartphone sales are increasing.)

No, smartphones aren’t going to kill laptops or desktops any time soon. But they do appear to be taking a chunk out of tablets. Compare an iPhone 6 Plus, or even an iPhone 6, to an iPad. Compared to an iPhone 6 Plus, an iPad Mini looks absurdly small — why would you bother using the iPad Mini if you owned both? The iPad’s software doesn’t really take advantage of the larger screen like it should. You can’t run multiple apps at once, a feature that might justify picking up a tablet. Yes, there are niche apps that can take advantage of the larger display for some professional uses, but tablets become less compelling as your smartphone becomes larger.

The same is true in Android land. Google has killed the Nexus 7 tablet now that they have a Nexus 6 smartphone. Why would you want a 7-inch tablet if you have a 6-inch phone? Android tablets also can’t display multiple applications side-by-side, so the big advantage to having a larger tablet is just having a larger screen to consume media on.

Microsoft Realized People Still Use PCs

RELATED: Why I Still Use Windows 7 After a Year of Trying to Like Windows 8

If Windows 8 was a “touch-first” operating system, as Microsoft said it was, the Windows 10 Technical Preview is a “mouse-and-keyboard-first” operating system. Microsoft has woken up and realized people will still be using PCs and that Windows should be a good operating system for desktop usage.

The magnitude of this shift can’t be overstated. During Windows 8 development, Paul Thurrot and others reported that, inside Microsoft, the plan was to work towards removing the desktop from future versions of Windows. In Windows 8, the desktop was “just an app” — remember that? And maybe that app would be gone entirely by Windows 9 or 10. That’s no longer happening. After years of user complaints, Microsoft has realized that touch-based tablets alone aren’t the future.

Tablets Can’t Replace PCs, but Smartphones Can Replace Tablets

So really, what’s the point of a tablet? Smartphones are becoming larger, and they’re always with you and have a data connection. Tablets can’t run more than one app at a time, anyway — Windows tablets can, but very few apps are available for them. Once your smartphone’s screen is large enough, it can provide that simplified, one-app-at-a-time, touch-based consumption experience anywhere. Why bother with a tablet?

Laptops (and desktops) are also still necessary, providing a powerful mouse-and-keyboard interface with multiple windows and multitasking. For productivity use — or just multitasking — an iPad or Android tablet is much clunkier to use than a standard Windows, Mac, Linux, or even Chrome OS PC.

So where does that leave tablets? Larger phones are encroaching from the low-end, and laptops are becoming lighter and more battery-efficient at the high-end. You can even get laptops that can perform some tablet duties — Microsoft is betting big on this convergence. Why buy a tablet? When would you use it instead of your big smartphone, or your laptop? Sometimes, sure — enough to buy one and drag it around with you all the time? Not necessarily.

Tablets need to evolve, so they can actually use that bigger screen to do more than a smartphone can do. A tablet with multitasking, perhaps even with a larger screen, now that’s a bit more compelling. The Surface Pro 3 is such a machine. Google will offer a keyboard dock for their new Nexus 9 so it can be more of a productivity machine. And Apple is rumored to be working on an “iPad Pro” with a larger screen and multitasking, too.

Now, tablets aren’t dead. Far from it. But they aren’t looking as healthy as they used to. There was a time when all the pundits thought tablets would replace laptops for most people, but that definitely isn’t happening. Many people thought everyone would have “three screens” — smartphone, tablet, and laptop or desktop — and that doesn’t seem inevitable, either.

Tablets are getting squeezed in the middle, and they’ll need to actually become more powerful productivity machines with multitasking to compete against laptops at the high-end. The idea that everyone will replace their laptop with a 10-inch screen that can only run a single app at a time — now there’s an idea that seems dead. Tablets will need to become much more like PCs to actually replace laptops — but then you’ll just have a different type of PC, anyway.

Image Credit: SirMo76 on Flickr, William Hook on FlickrScott Akerman on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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