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Tablet market nears peak

The growth in larger-screen smartphones, or phablets if you must, has already impacted the young tablet segment, which is only four years old. Apple introduced the first iPad in April 2010.

IDC reported tablet shipments grew just 3.9% in Q1 to 50.4 million compared to a year ago. The single-digit figure merely confirms the downward trend first experienced in Q4, when growth slowed to 28%. That’s huge shift for the segment accustomed to robust annual increases – 68% in 2013 and 78% in 2012.

Apple was the big loser in Q1, with shipments down 16% and its market share dropping from 40% to 32.5%. Samsung saw shipments jump by 32% or about three million units – pretty much equal to Apple’s decline -- in the period, expanding its share to 22.3% from 17.5% a year earlier.

Lenovo also had a strong quarter, with a 224% surge in sales (from a low base of 600,000 in 2012), taking its market share to 4.1% from just 1.3% a year earlier. Asus’ shipments were down almost 3% and its share slipped to 5%.

Figures from Canalys show growth in tablet shipments slowing to 21% during the period. (IDC’s data are based on slate and 2-in-1 tablets, which may explain the larger difference.)

The big slowdown was in Asia, Europe and North America, where sales of larger smartphones have been selling well for a couple of years. In the US iPad shipments were down 40%, according to Canalys.

Other markets continued to experience strong growth in tablets -- the Middle East was up 100%, greater China increased 74%, and Central and Eastern Europe expanded by 47%.

Meanwhile, smartphone sales continued to climb, surging 42% in 2013. IDC and Gartner both expect another 20% growth this year (to about 1.2 billion units).

As the price of smartphone drops, there is little doubt the above markets will see similar declines in growth rates for tablets as consumers opt for large format phones. Tablets, for those not wanting (or who can’t afford) three devices, are stuck in the middle – not compact enough for communications and not a full computing platform for many.

So for PC makers like Dell, HP and to a lesser extent Lenovo, tablets will be a short-term respite from tumbling PC sales. Lucky for Apple, the vast majority of its profits come from the iPhone – the others certainly aren’t as fortunate.