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Down go tablet shipments -- for the first time ever

In the fourth quarter, four of the top five tablet makers saw shipments tumble. That lone uptick wasn't for Apple or Samsung, and certainly not for Amazon.

Apple exec Phil Schiller showcasing the full iPad product line in 2014. Tim Stevens/CNET

The tablet market has, since 2010, been soaring. But new data shows that things aren't so rosy any longer.

Total worldwide shipments of tablets and so-called 2-in-1 devices (hybrids of laptops and tablets) during the fourth quarter of 2014 hit 76.1 million units, declining by 3.2 percent compared to the 78.6 million tablets that headed to store shelves in the fourth quarter of 2013, IDC reported Monday. This was the first time that tablet shipments have declined since a wave of devices, including Apple's iPad, ignited the market in 2010, IDC said.

Nearly all of the major tablet vendors had a disappointing fourth quarter. While the iPad was the market leader in the fourth quarter with 21.4 million units shipped, that was down 17.8 percent compared with the year-earlier period. Second-place company Samsung, which offers a host of devices, including its Galaxy Tab line, saw shipments decline by 18.4 percent to 11 million units. Amazon suffered the worst year-over-year decline, with Kindle Fire units tumbling 70 percent to 1.7 million units shipped.

Lenovo was the only company in the top five to actually have a stronger fourth quarter as shipments rose 9.1 percent year over year to 3.7 million units. (The other member of the top five, Asus, saw shipments decline 25 percent.)

Tablets have been facing a wide range of competitive forces over the last couple of years. For one, many users don't upgrade to new tablets as frequently as they typically do with smartphones, sales of which have benefited from carrier subsidies that make for lower price tags. In addition, many studies indicate that owners who end up buying a new tablet give their old tablets to friends or relatives, reducing sales.

IDC, which slashed its forecast on tablet shipments last year, said that part of the problem in the tablet market in the fourth quarter was that it still relies too much on the two leaders, Apple and Samsung. The market's Achilles' heel, according to the research firm, is that it's "very top heavy."

Meanwhile, consumers have shown a keen interest in larger smartphones, also known as phablets, that approach the size of small tablets. During the fourth quarter, Apple saw phenomenal success in its first foray into that realm, with the big-screen iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which led the company to record sales of 74.5 million iPhones overall.

"Although Apple expanded its iPad lineup by keeping around older models and offering a lower entry price point of $249, it still wasn't enough to spur iPad sales given the excitement around the launch of the new iPhones," IDC analyst Jitesh Ubrani said in a statement. "Meanwhile, Samsung's struggles continued as low-cost vendors are quickly proving that mid- to high-priced Android tablets simply aren't cut out for today's tablet market."

Last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook acknowledged that his company had hit a rough patch in tablets, saying that the space is " very bifurcated." Cook went on to say that while iPad sales are strong in emerging markets, in developed countries such as the US, "the market is clearly weaker."

Despite the troubles and the fourth-quarter decline, tablet shipments for the full year 2014 increased 4.4 percent to a total of 229.6 million units, according to IDC.

And that growth should continue in 2015, IDC said, thanks to several factors, including the launch of Windows 10 and a shift toward larger screen sizes.

None of the top tablet makers immediately responded to a request for comment.