Ten years ago, tablet computers were marketed as the vanguard of the “post-PC” era, but traditional desktop and notebook PCs remained popular as tablet sales plateaued. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, tablets saw an unexpected resurgence over the past quarter, benefitting every major tablet maker during a period when shipments of desktop computers markedly declined.
According to market research firm Canalys, overall tablet shipments grew by a whopping 26% during the second quarter of 2020, reaching just over 37.5 million units industry-wide. At the same time, desktop PC shipments dropped by an equivalent 26%, and notebook shipments grew 24%, collectively helping computer makers grow that segment of their businesses during what might otherwise have been a disastrous quarter. Retail stores were closed across multiple countries due to coronavirus concerns, leading Microsoft to permanently shutter its computer-focused brick and mortar shops, and forcing other companies to suffer heavy losses and bankruptcies.
Apple was a notable exception to the doom and gloom, posting record revenues for the fiscal quarter with billion-dollar gains in both iPad and Mac sales. While Apple doesn’t provide unit sales, Canalys pegged its shipments at 14.249 million iPads for the quarter, up 19.8% over the prior year, giving the company a 38% market share in tablets. The most interesting element in Canalys’s report is its analysis that the uptick in tablet demand is attributable to their strong fit for remote work and education use, including features that can be used for communication and collaboration, combined with their budget-friendly pricing that enables “each family member to have their own device.” Moreover, it said, cellular carriers offered perks such as free wireless data for education-issued tablets, and retailers offered “massive discounts” to help spur sales.
That said, Canalys’s numbers should be understood as informed estimates: It claims overall Mac shipments totaled only 5.35 million units in the quarter, but Apple’s own numbers reflected a 21.6% year-over-year jump in Mac revenues, which would point to higher total unit sales. Due to Apple’s accounting practices, however, it’s unclear whether the revenue jump was actually due to selling more units, selling a greater number of higher-priced computers, or both.
Samsung’s tablets also had a good quarter, jumping 39.2% but with a smaller total number of units than Apple, growing from just over 5 million in Q2 2019 to just over 7 million in Q2 2020. Huawei, Amazon, and Lenovo all appear to have strong double-digit percentage gains, as well, but each with sub-5-million unit shipments compared with the market leaders. Combining tablet, desktop, and laptop shipments together, Lenovo led the industry with 20.2 million units shipped and 18.3% market share, ahead of Apple’s 17.7% share and HP’s 16.4% share, the latter notably offering new 5G laptops but lacking in the tablet department.
Whether tablets remain hot depends as much on the pandemic’s impact on remote learning and economic pricing as anything else. Millions of students will return to school over the next two months, in some cases needing new or improved computers compared with what they were using at the end of the last semester. Computer and accessory makers are continuing to offer solutions to turn tablets into miniature laptops, although some are much more affordable than others.