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The great tablet gold rush is over

Last week, Dell announced it will no longer sell Android tablets and will focus on developing Windows-powered 2-in-1 machines — a category that includes the Microsoft Surface and Lenovo Yoga — instead.

"The slate tablet market is over-saturated and is experiencing declining demand from consumers, so we’ve decided to discontinue the Android-based Venue tablet line," a Dell spokesman told PCWorld.

That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. 

Tablets sales have fallen greatly in the last few years. According to IDC, when looking at sales in the first quarter of 2016, pretty much every major tablet maker's growth fell year-over-year. Apple's iPad and Samsung's Galaxy Tabs, the two most popular brands of tablets, were down 18.8% and 28.1%, respectively.

The only two companies in the top five tablet vendors for Q1 2016 that saw growth were Amazon and Huawei. Amazon's tablet growth was up an incredible 5,421.7% and Huawei up by 82.2% compared to the same period last year. The reasons for those two brands' growth are very specific (more on them in a bit).

For Dell, killing its Android tablets is probably the right decision. Despite generally positive reviews for its Android-powered Venue 8 7000 tablet last year (including Mashable's) — it had a premium build quality, super thin design, and Intel RealSense 3D cameras — very few people actually bought it.

Dell, a PC company that dominated the '90s and early aughts (no doubt in part thanks to its memorable "Dell Dude" commercials) with its super-affordable build-to-order desktops, is not a brand many people associate with tablets.

My own anecdotal findings confirm as much. I asked friends and family, people who remember how great Dell used to be, if they knew the company made tablets and none did.

To make sure it wasn't just a fluke and my sample size too unsavvy, I asked several tech-savvy friends and coworkers (these are people who are aren't gadget nerds like me, but know of the trends happening in the tech industry) and they, too, didn't know Dell made tablets.

When I asked those same people which brands came to mind when they thought of tablets, the top responses I got were, of course, Apple's iPad, Samsung Galaxy "something" (most couldn't name a specific model) and Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad as the future of computing in 2010, the world didn't take to it at first. Many, including myself, brushed it off as just a giant iPod touch.

But once iPad-optimized apps started hitting the App Store, iPad sales started to skyrocket, peaking in 2014 before its slow decline to today.

During growth years from 2011 to 2014, analysts and tech journalists alike thought the iPad would continue growing and surpass even iPhone growth.

That, of course, didn't happen. Tablets are more like PCs than iPhones. Most people are using their tablets at home. Unlike smartphones, which we take everywhere we go, tablets are less perishable. Because of how most people use them (on the sofa or in bed), they're less susceptible to breaking and needing replacing. 

Not only that, but the things people are using them for — browsing the internet, reading e-books, playing games, and watching videos — are less performance-heavy and don't need upgrading every year or two.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has admitted as much, that iPads are more like PCs with replacement cycles longer than originally anticipated — closer to four or five years.

One need only look at how long the iPad 2, which was released in 2011, has stuck around to see people are hanging onto their tablets longer. I, myself, still use my iPad 3 on a daily basis (primarily for reading on my couch and in bed, no less) and don't have plans to replace it in the near future.

Cook's public response for declining iPad sales remains optimistic because Apple is in the business of selling new iPads. Every new iPad is the best, most powerful iPad ever. But whether people will care to upgrade is another thing.

At the very least, Apple is trying to keep the tablet market alive in any condition possible. The company released two iPad Pros, a 12.9-inch model in late 2015 and a 9.7-inch model this past spring.

Seeing as we haven't heard anything about record-setting iPad Pro sales, it's unlikely the Pro line will do much to alter falling iPad sales.

Fearful of the iPad's potential dominance, tech companies rushed to produce tablets.

Samsung produced its own Galaxy Tabs and Galaxy Note tablets and threw its marketing might behind it.

Google tried to eat at Apple from the low-end with its hugely successful Nexus 7 (2012 and 2013 version), but then for some reason abandoned the mini-tablet just when it looked like Apple was getting scared and released its own 7.9-inch iPad mini.

Google also had partners like Samsung and HTC build larger 10- and 9-inch Nexus tablets, but it also let them run their hardware course and then dumped them like a quick rebound. 

Things were especially bad for the poor Nexus 9, the last Nexus tablet Google released in 2014. The tablet was a critical disaster ailed by poor performance, meh build quality, and software update issues. (A Google search brings up pages and pages worth of crash reports from users and bricked devices after applying software updates.)

And as if Google's own disinterest in the Nexus tablets wasn't enough, the company further confused consumers by releasing the Pixel C last year, a $499 Android tablet that was trying to kill both the iPad and Microsoft Surface Pro in one swing. (It didn't.)

Google's tablets are unloved and uncared for.

The tablets that are seeing real growth are the dirt-cheap ones, led by Amazon.

Amazon's greatest strength in hardware has always been pricing. The company has the scale and long-tail strategy to forgo profit margins in hopes of quickly gaining market share.

Clearly, that's working out really well, as evidenced by the insane 5,400% YoY growth.

Last year Amazon released a $50 Fire Tablet with 7-inch screen and just barely passable specs. They were so cheap, Amazon sold them in a six-pack for $250. In my review, I called it a "perfect throwaway tablet." Amazon also sells an 8-inch tablet for $150 and a 10-inch for $230.

In comparison, Apple's cheapest tablet, the iPad mini 2, starts at $270 — $40 more expensive than even Amazon's largest and most expensive Fire Tablet.

Huawei also saw YoY growth according to IDC. But I can't name a single Huawei tablet that runs Android. I'm sure they exist, but their tablet marketshare in the U.S. is either minuscule or nonexistent. The company's recent MateBook tablet hybrid undercuts the Surface Pro 4 by $200, but it runs Windows 10, not a mobile OS like iOS or Android.

Asus still continues to plug away at its myriad of ZenPad Android tablets, but like Huawei and Xiaomi's tablets, how many people outside of Asia are really buying them? In Asia, these may be inexpensive alternatives, but I doubt they're making a killing in profit.

In the beginning, the pitch was: The tablet is the future of computing. It'll replace your phone and your laptop.

Then it became: A small tablet will replace your smartphone.

Today, the pitch: It's good enough to replace your laptop. But only for some people, and only if you're willing get by with a mobile OS.

Long story short: Tablets are a complete mess right now. We can't seem to decide if we want them to replace all of our devices or only a few of them.

The truth is, it doesn't matter. Just like one size and device doesn't fit all, one type of tablet doesn't fit all. iPads and Android tablets and 2-in-1s, transformers and Surface Pros can all exist alongside one another.

This "for one to succeed, the other must fail" logic is silly.

While it's unlikely tablets growth will ever return to the way iPad sales were a few years ago, I don't think tablets are a fad.

The iPad isn't going anywhere. Android tablets, however, appear to be doomed in their current form. But I see them morphing into a new form that's more useful. Two-in-one Chromebooks like the Asus Flip, which can fold back into a tablet, run Chrome OS, but they're going to get Android apps very soon. With Android apps, these 2-in-1s Chromebooks will only become more attractive — the same way Windows 2-in-1 laptop/tablet machines are now selling like hotcakes.

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