The tablet market is looking at a sea change as professionals and consumers alike realize that slates aren't always ideal for productivity. Slates will slowly cede ground to detachables, which are already showing traction, according to IDC. Moreover, the detachable form factor will benefit Microsoft far more than it benefits Apple or Google.
Tablet shipments around the world are expected to drop about 6% during 2016, compared to 2015, with total numbers reaching 195 million units. IDC believes the market will pick up again thanks to the increasing appeal of detachables, a hybrid category within the larger tablet space.
Devices such as the Apple iPad Pro, Google Pixel C, and Microsoft Surface fall into the detachables category thanks to their hardware support for keyboards. These flexible pieces of hardware can behave like PCs or tablets, depending on the circumstances, and offer a more rounded experience. (Apple is widely expected to show off a smaller iPad Pro on March 21.)
During 2016, IDC expects to see Android account for 18.2% of the detachable market, while Apple will account for 28.5%, and Microsoft will account for 53.3%. These numbers are strictly for the detachable segment, and not the larger tablet market as a whole.
"Everyone in the industry recognizes that traditional personal computers like desktops and notebooks will potentially be replaced by detachables in the coming years and this is why we will see a lot of new products being introduced this year," explained Jean Philippe Bouchard, research director of tablets for IDC.
For example, the recent Mobile World Congress trade show saw the debut of several new detachables, such as the Huawei MateBook. The MateBook resembles an iPad, but runs Windows 10 and works with a stylish, leather-bound keyboard for pecking out documents. Alcatel, too, showed off the Alcatel Plus 10 for road warriors. The fact that these devices run Windows and not Android is no accident.
After flooding the market with inexpensive tablets between 2012 and 2015, hardware makers have cooled off on the slate. Further, the visibility and utility of Microsoft's Surface line of devices is clear to IT pros and consumers alike.
"This momentous shift in form factor will bring along the first significant impact of Windows-based devices that the tablet market has seen," said Ryan Reith, program director with IDC. "Windows 10 seems to be making headway in both the PC and tablet markets, mainly driven by devices with larger screen sizes. Despite the free licensing on products under 9 inches the growth for Windows-based tablets will be primarily on devices with displays between 9 and 13 inches."
The shift in size in notable. Apple's 9.7-inch iPad largely defined the modern tablet market, but Android makers were quick to seize on the 7- to 9-inch range for their hardware during the initial rush. As phablets have become more popular, interest in small tablets has waned. Apple seems to have seen the writing on the wall. It debuted the iPad Pro late last year with a 12.9-inch screen. As beautiful as the iPad Pro's hardware is, iOS remains to be a limiting factor. IDC sees this as a liability for Apple.
"Until we see a day where touch is introduced for Mac OS X and inroads are paved to bring Android and Chrome more closely aligned," continued IDC's Reith, "we believe Windows remains the logical choice for detachable products."
IDC's predictions for the tablet market bear out this opinion. The firm, in its analysis, believes Windows will hold 74.6% of the detachables category come 2020, while Apple's share will fall to 7.2%, and Android's will remain steady at 18.1%.