Nearly every category of consumer electronics shows declining sales

Sales of laptops, tablets, smart watches, even smartphones have either plateaued or are in decline. Will anything turn it around?

Apple watch with crown sproinging out the side

(Photoillustration by Gerrit de Jonge)

It’s a really bad time to be a gadget maker, if the steady raft of poor sales reports is anything to go by.

The latest comes from analysis firm IDC, which found that tablet shipments declined 12.3 per cent year-over-year in the April-to-June quarter. Apple increased its market share to 25.8 per cent from 24.9 per cent, but overall shipments declined to 10 million units from 11 million.

The report comes just days after figures from Deloitte showing that so-called internet-of-things gadgets have flatlined in the United Kingdom. Just three per cent of British households own a smart thermostat, up from two per cent last year, while a similar two per cent own phone-controlled lights – the same amount as a year earlier.

Smartwatches are also on the decline, again according to IDC. Vendors shipped just 3.5 million units in the second quarter of 2016, down from 5.1 million.

And smartphones – the quintessentially important gadget of our age – are also on the downward swing. The market declined for the first time ever in the first quarter of 2016, according to IDC.

Put it all together and there are just about no markets that are growing for electronics makers. So what’s a big multinational company to do?

Apple is expected to refresh its iPhone line next week, and quite possibly its Watch as well, but that’s not likely going to do it. The gadget-buying public is clearly unenthused after more than a decade of conspicuous consumption that started in earnest with the iPod.

Are there any gadgets or electronics categories on the horizon that might spark buyers’ collective imaginations?

Domestic robots, particularly in the form of vacuums, might be one now that the Roomba finally has serious competition from Dyson.

Top-end machines from both iRobot and Dyson currently cost an arm and a leg, but with the two engaged in a battle for consumers’ floors, robovacs will presumably get better and cheaper quickly, to the point where they may become something every household is going to want.

I’m a big fan of 360-degree cameras, an emergent category of devices that I’ll have plenty more to say about soon. With the likes of Samsung and LG now selling 360 cameras, it’s a category that’s becoming affordable and therefore mainstream.

I’m in the camp of people who believe that once you’ve taken a photo in 360 degrees, it’s hard to go back to plain old 2D photos. 360 cameras are also the intermediary step toward virtual reality, which may not take off for a while because of its high cost and need for a high-end computer.

Sony may change that this fall with its PlayStation VR, but it remains to be seen whether the company’s headset can do anything besides games. It could very well turn out to be the next Kinect.

Beyond that, self-driving cars appear to be the next, big sexy technology, but that’s another category that isn’t going to arrive for a while. Actually, it’s arriving one piece at a time without our really knowing it.

More sensors, communications and automatic functions are creeping into every year’s new models, so cars are becoming robotic under our noses. It’s unlikely that someone will hold a press conference somewhere like Apple did with the first iPhone that broadcasts the final arrival of the robot car, because we’ll already be there by then.

So will we ever again see another momentous press conference where somebody does announce the equivalent of the first iPhone? Maybe, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it now.