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iPad Pro, Surface Pro Make Gains in Bad Tablet Market

The "detachable" tablet segment, which includes Microsoft's Surface and Apple's iPad Pro, was the lone bright spot in an otherwise poor year for tablet sales, according to recently released data from IDC.

Tablet shipments declined by nearly 14 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter of 2015, totaling 65.9 million units, the research firm said Monday. The tablet market shrank by 10 percent in 2015 overall, with shipments totaling 206.8 million for the year. That's well short of the 230.1 million tablets that were shipped in 2014, and misses IDC's earlier forecast of 211.3 million units.

The biggest casualty has been traditional "slate" tablets like the iPad. According to IDC, shipments of slate tablets fell by over 21 percent in 2015, the segment's largest annual decline since IDC has been keeping track.

However, detachables like the iPad Pro and the Surface have boomed, accounting for 8.1 million shipments in the fourth quarter -- more than double from the same period the year before, according to IDC, and "an all-time high."

"One of the biggest reasons why detachables are growing so fast is because end users are seeing those devices as PC replacements," said Jean Philippe Bouchard, IDC research director, in a prepared statement.

Microsoft, which effectively pioneered the detachable tablet market back in 2012 with the debut of the first Surface, sold about 1.6 million Surface devices in the fourth quarter, the majority of them Surface Pros "and not the more affordable Surface 3," Bouchard said. Apple sold an estimated 2 million iPad Pros during that same period.

"With these results, it's clear that price is not the most important feature considered when acquiring a detachable -- performance is," Bouchard said.

IDC Senior Research Analyst Jitesh Ubrani described the influx of new detachables during the fourth quarter of 2015 as being "unique." Until recently, the field of detachables had largely consisted of Microsoft's Surface devices, the earliest of which had been panned for their price, their dearth of apps, and their limited performance capabilities compared to other comparably priced tablets. Microsoft course-corrected in 2014 with the launch of the Surface Pro 3, which was decidedly more business-optimized than its predecessors. Late last year, a raft of Surface lookalikes, including the iPad Pro, entered the market alongside the new Surface Pro 4.

According to Ubrani, while Apple's detachable tablet currently outsells Microsoft's, the growth in that category is a good sign for both companies.

"Despite lukewarm reviews, the iPad Pro was the clear winner this season as it was the top selling detachable, surpassing notable entries from Microsoft and other PC vendors. It's also important to note that the transition towards detachable tablets has presented positive opportunities for both Apple and Microsoft," Ubrani said.

About the Author

Gladys Rama is the senior site producer for RCPmag.com and senior editor of AWSInsider.net.