12/02/2016 10:39 GMT | Updated 12/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Smartphones Fly as Tablets Take a Nose Dive

Once upon a time, tablets could do no wrong. Ownership and usage rates were growing dramatically, new models were flooding the market and the smaller screens of smartphones were being seriously criticised. Tablets were the must-have devices which combined the functionality of laptops with the portability of mobiles.

Fast-forward to the second half of the 10s decade and the situation looks quite different. According to our latest research, ownership rates are plateauing and the numbers using a tablet to get online are starting to contract. Manufacturers appear to have de-prioritised them, with Apple's most recent models pitched squarely at convincing existing business users to upgrade rather than enticing current non-owners to make a purchase. And while most people would still regard them as nice-to-have items, they're far from the essential gadget they once were.

This change comes through particularly clearly if you ask internet users to pick their most important internet device. When people have to choose between PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets, it's the first three which compete for top position (each of them being selected by about a third). Of course, there are some predictable peaks underlying this trend. For younger groups, there's absolutely no contest: smartphones are the outright winner. In contrast, older consumers still gravitate very strongly towards PCs (with just 10% of 55-64s selecting a smartphone as their most important device). The regional split is telling, too: those in APAC and MENA go for the smartphone, whereas Europeans and North Americans favour laptops. In short, there's a direct correlation between time spent on mobiles and the likelihood of thinking that it's your most important device.

What's particularly striking here is the incredibly poor scores registered by tablets. Overall, it's just 4% who think of a tablet as their most important device. Even if you limit the group to contain tablet owners exclusively, the figure sees a very meagre rise to only 11%. And whereas PCs, laptops and smartphones all emerge as victorious among certain groups or in particular parts of the world, tablets fare remarkably poorly in every single place and among every single demographic split. Quite simply, the once-burning love affair with this device has very definitely been extinguished.

One of the problems here is that, while tablets were once out-innovating or out-performing smartphones, it's the latter which have evolved considerably in recent years - especially with screens on some mobile devices becoming large enough to mount a real challenge to those on tablets. It's certainly pretty telling that tablet owners are most likely to say that smartphones are their most essential device. What's more, tablet manufacturers were never able to convince younger demographics to part with their cash; for 16-24s, tablets were either too expensive or uninteresting to grab their attention. As a direct result, our data shows that the youngest consumers are now less likely to own a tablet than 35-54s (and are on a par with 55-64s) - a trend rarely seen when it comes to digital devices.

Despite the undoubtedly challenging outlook for tablets, there are areas where they continue to perform well. In our research, we track about 40 different online activities by device, with tablets scoring their strongest figures for anything to do with online content consumption. So, they've been most successful at holding off the smartphone challenge when it comes to watching on-demand content, using OTT services such as Netflix and watching live TV. As activities that are arguably most likely to happen inside the home, it's understandable that the larger screens of tablets retain appeal.

Tablets also continue to do especially well among parents. Look at levels of sharing for different device types and there's a very clear and notable peak among those with children - suggesting that many see tablets as safe in-home content devices for their kids.

Arguably, these trends are illustrative of how tablets are likely to evolve. It's hard to see how they could ever re-capture the momentum from smartphones, especially with our latest data showing that the average consumer is now spending over 2 hours per day on their mobile (rising to over 3.25 hours among 16-24s); instead, tablets are almost certainly set to become more specialised devices, appealing to specific user groups (like out-and-about professionals) or being used as family entertainment tools. The question is whether these are strong enough reasons for people to purchase a new tablet once the lifespan of their current one comes to an end. If not, tablets could soon be heading the same way as the iPod - a once iconic device that simply couldn't manage to stay relevant.