The tablet market has seen better days. In the first quarter of 2016 shipments totaled just 39.6 million units, which represents a 14.7 per cent decline year-over-year. However, while the market is shrinking there is a category of slates which is gaining more interest from consumers.
That category is made up of so-called detachable tablets. Microsoft basically created it with the original Surface and Surface Pro four years ago, but now it is Apple which is reaping the benefits of its rival's efforts with the iPad Pro line. In fact, this is the second straight quarter when iPad Pro obliterates the Surface line.
"Microsoft arguably created the market for detachable tablets with the launch of their Surface line of products", says IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers senior research analyst Jitesh Ubrani, but "Apple's recent foray into this segment has garnered them an impressive lead".
IDC does not reveal how many iPad Pros or Surface devices were shipped in Q1, so I have reached out to the company to shed some light on this matter. When I hear back I will update the story with more information.
Ubrani notes that this lead is only for the short term, pointing out that the iPad Pro line's "continued long-term success may prove challenging as a higher entry price point staves off consumers and iOS has yet to prove its enterprise-readiness, leaving plenty of room for Microsoft and their hardware partners to reestablish themselves".
And, indeed, there are some questionable benefits to opting for an iPad Pro instead of a Surface Pro 4 or Surface 3 even. Apple's tablets are restricted to iOS apps, which can be more limiting compared to Windows programs. Enterprises have embraced mobile platforms, but Windows still reigns supreme in many areas. Surface devices are especially attractive for multitasking and performing resource-intensive tasks, which iPad Pro is simply not ready for in terms of both hardware and software.
However, no matter how things look on paper, it is the reality of the market which shows just how successful an idea is. And in that regard, Apple' iPad Pro is proving to be a better bet than Microsoft's Surface. As my colleague Brian Fagioli put it, iPad Pro "destroyed" the Surface line in Q4 2015.
Then, according to IDC, the former shipped in over two million units while the latter saw shipments of about 1.6 million units. Keep in mind that in the final quarter of 2015 Apple only had a single iPad Pro in the line, namely the 12.9-inch model, while Microsoft had more models, like Surface Pro 4 and Surface 3; there were also older versions available to purchase in that quarter, like Surface Pro 3 and Surface 2.
Shipments of detachable tablets totaled 8.1 million units, and iPad Pro got about 25 per cent of that market while being available for about a month and a half (it was released in mid-November). A 9.7-inch version was recently introduced, so the iPad Pro line is likely to perform even better in the quarters to follow.
Worth mentioning is the threat that detachable tablets pose to PCs. IDC research director of tablets Jean Philippe Bouchard says that the smartphone vendors that have joined this market will be able to "aggressively compete for this new computing segment" and "utilise the detachable segment to create new mobile computing end-user experiences if customers are using their detachables in combination with their smartphones".
Consumers who want to augment their smartphone experience are no doubt taking a close look at detachable tablets. Thanks to their software design and the introduction of new features they can integrate nicely into the mobile lifestyle. Some evidence of that is Apple's Continuity and Microsoft's similar response to it, both of which enable detachable tablets to play nice with the smartphones on their respective platforms. (On Windows 10 that benefit extends to Bluetooth-equipped PCs, which many laptops offer, but few desktops do; same goes for Continuity, which works on iOS and OS X devices alike.)
In this first quarter of 2016, IDC says that Apple shipped 10.3 million units, with Samsung coming in second place with six million units and Amazon and Lenovo on the last place on the podium with 2.2 million units each.
The only vendor in the top five which saw an increase in year-over-year shipments is Huawei; it moved 2.1 million units, up from 1.1 million units a year prior. Last year, the whole tablet market totaled 46.4 million units in terms of shipments.