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Smaller tablets are all the rage, but analysts say 7-inch Surface tablet is no guaranteed hit

by Doug Drinkwater

May 2 2013

Microsoft is supposedly planning to release a 7-inch Surface tablet later this year
Microsoft is supposedly planning to release a 7-inch Surface tablet later this year

BlackBerry boss Thorsten Heins may think the tablet is dying but that’s not the view at research firm IDC. The group’s latest report reveals that first quarter tablet shipments surpassed those from the first half of 2012, but does have a word of warning for Microsoft in its quest to launch a smaller Surface.

IDC says that tablet shipments jumped up to 49.2 million units in Q1, thereby going past the figure for the first half of 2012, and put this down to growing demand for smaller screen tablets, such as Apple’s iPad mini.

It is no surprise than that Apple outperformed IDC’s most recent projection for the quarter, shipping 19.5 million units compared to a forecast of 18.7 million units.

"Sustained demand for the iPad mini and increasingly strong commercial shipments led to a better-than expected first quarter for Apple," said Tom Mainelli, research director for tablets at IDC.

"In addition, by moving the iPad launch to the fourth quarter of 2012, Apple seems to have avoided the typical first-quarter slowdown that traditionally occurred when consumers held off buying in January and February in anticipation of a new product launch in March."

With Android growing to become the biggest tablet operating system (57% compared to 40% for iOS), the first quarter also proved to be a good time for Android vendors Samsung and Asus.

IDC says that the former used its recent smartphone growth (presumably with the new Galaxy S4) to push its tablets into new markets and channels, while steady demand for Google’s Nexus 7 saw Asus jump Amazon into third.

In addition, the report will give encouragement to Microsoft, which entered the top five in the tablet market for the first time since launching its line of Surface tablets.

IDC says that combined Surface RT and Surface Pro shipments reached nearly 900,000 units in the quarter, with many of these being for the well-received Surface Pro.

This finding certainly tallies with another report into Microsoft’s tablet sales, but differs from Strategy Analytics' last study. The firm says that Microsoft shipped three million Surface tablets in Q1, albeit to resellers and retailers.

And while the Surface appeared to generally outperform other Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets (1.8 million shipments, including Surface models), researchers had a word of warning for Microsoft in its bid -- reportedly -- to launch a smaller tablet.

"Recent rumors have circulated about the possibility of smaller screen Windows RT and Windows 8 tablets hitting the market," said Ryan Reith, program manager for IDC's Mobility Tracker program.

"However, the notion that this will be the saving grace is flawed. Clearly the market is moving toward smart 7-8 inch devices, but Microsoft's larger challenges center around consumer messaging and lower cost competition. If these challenges are addressed, along with the desired screen size variations, then we could see Microsoft make even further headway in 2013 and beyond."

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