Following the release of its decidedly upbeat latest report on global smartphone shipments, the  the International Data Corporation (IDC) has just issued a more moderate edition of its Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker, which records slightly less than the forecast growth figures, and raises the possibility of market saturation, especially in certain niches in North America. And pressure on sales of smaller tablets from larger smartphones and phablets is one of the constraints cited by IDC.

“In some markets, consumers are already making the choice to buy a large smartphone rather than buying a small tablet, and as a result we’ve lowered our long-term forecast,” Tom Mainelli, Research Director, Tablets at IDC remarked. “Meanwhile, in mature markets like the U.S. where tablets have been shipping in large volumes since 2010 and are already well established, we’re less concerned about big phones cannibalizing shipments and more worried about market saturation.”

According to IDC, “worldwide tablet shipments are expected to reach 221.3 million units in 2013, down slightly from a previous forecast of 227.4 million but still 53.5% above 2012 levels. Shipment growth is forecast to slow to 22.2% year over year in 2014 to a total of 270.5 million units. By 2017, annual market growth will slow to single-digit percentages and shipments will peak at 386.3 million units, down from the previous forecast of 407 million units.”

Assuming these forecasts are accurate, are we going to see a tapering off in the adoption of ebooks and a diminishing of the transformative pressure on traditional publishers? I think that would be too much for the Booksellers Association and the Big Five to hope for. Even at the lower figure, that still means more tablets shipping annually than the entire population of the U.S. And added to the pressure on the tablet category at the low end of the size range, we also have encroachment from the PC end, with Microsoft and its partners eager, if not desperate, to drive the adoption of Windows 8 and its own answer to the tablet category.

“For months, Microsoft and Intel have been promising more affordable Windows tablets and 2-in-1 devices,” added Jitesh Ubrani, Research Analyst with the IDC Worldwide Tablet Tracker. “This holiday season, we expect a huge push for these devices as both companies flex their marketing muscles.”

So outmoded PCs and laptops will also increasingly be replaced by devices better suited as ereaders, while larger phablets already are close in size to small mass-market paperbacks. Saturation in the tablet market may still be enough to soak the traditional printed book trade.


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