Much ado about the iPad

0.

The fact: last quarter Apple sold 16.4 million iPads, a 16% drop compared to the units sold one year ago in the same quarter. This bit of data started an interesting debate in the tech spheres, prompting the most varied theories and, in a sense, bringing up again questions about the iPad’s identity — even stuff I hadn’t heard since 2010.

I’d say that more than 16 million iPad sold over three months isn’t such a bad figure for a device which purportedly isn’t neither fish nor flesh, isn’t delivering on the initial promises, is in the middle of an identity crisis (pressed by personal computers on one side and smartphones on the other), etcetera etcetera.

1.

Jean-Louis Gassée, The iPad is a Tease:

I’ll offer an opinion: The iPad is a tease. Its meteoric debut raised expectations that it can’t currently meet.

[…]

I see the lull in iPad sales as a coming down to reality after unrealistic expectations, a realization that iPads aren’t as ready to replace PCs as many initially hoped.

Who said the iPad would replace PCs? (Like totally, actually, completely replace PCs.) I still believe that the best spot for the iPad is right where Steve Jobs put it when he introduced it in 2010: between Macs and iPhones. The crucial thing the iPad has done is demonstrating it can be a good-enough substitute for a Mac/PC laptop in certain situations, and that it can be a simple-enough substitute for a Mac/PC laptop for less tech-savvy people who previously had to resort to laptops (or, later, netbooks) to perform even simple tasks like Web browsing, email, using social media and doing a bit of photo sharing. For a lot of other people, and among power users, the iPad has proven to be a decent-enough device to add to their digital hub of devices, without really replacing anything. Nothing wrong with that.

Also, it would be interesting to further investigate where those ‘unrealistic expectations’ come from. I’m aware it’s not a huge statistical sample, but considering the people I know, online and offline, who own an iPad, and considering the people I’ve helped with their iPad, virtually none of them has manifested dissatisfaction with the device in an ‘unmet expectations’ kind of way. Everyone I know seems to have been aware of the scope of the device when they purchased it. They knew or understood what they could and what they could not do with it. There has been the occasional nuisance, but nothing that can be considered a ‘deal breaker.’ (I saw a man in his fifties at an Apple Store once, returning his iPad and saying that he had no use for it — he thought he could have been able to plug USB pendrives into the iPad and use them as external drives. If only he’d asked the Apple Store staff for advice in that regard when he went to buy the iPad the first time around…)

2.

I very much agree with Ben Thompson when, responding to Gassée’s piece, writes:

The future of the iPad is not to be a better Mac. That may happen by accident, just as the Mac eventually superseded the Apple II, but to pursue that explicitly would be to sacrifice what the iPad might become, and, more importantly, what it already is.

And, later on:

Let the iPad be the computer for those for whom computers are too much, even if this population by definition isn’t likely to upgrade frequently.

(from Don’t Give Up on the iPad)

Ben’s is a great piece, full of quote-worthy passages (even footnote 3: I do think there is a very real question about the cannibalistic effect a large-screen iPhone will have on the iPad; Apple’s response should be to better incentivize developers to build new iPad use cases, not to make an iPad like a Mac), but the sentence above touches on an aspect I immediately thought about when I heard of this ‘lack of growth’ of the iPad: the upgrade cycle. Regular people aren’t likely to upgrade their iPads as frequently as their smartphones — for them, the upgrade cycle is more similar to that of a desktop or laptop computer.

Back to the limited sample of people I know, only very few of them have upgraded from an iPad 3 or 4 to an iPad Air. I know people who upgraded from their iPad 1 and 2 to an iPad 3 or 4 mainly because of the Retina display, and another couple of friends have just got rid of their iPad 2 to buy an iPad Air. Some are leaving their full-size iPad behind to get an iPad mini Retina. But most of the regular users I know whose first iPad has been a third– or fourth-generation model, are quite happy with their device and aren’t eager to upgrade very soon. And I’m among those: I have an iPad 3 purchased in June 2012 which still handles pretty well whatever I’ve thrown at it so far and, while the latest iPad beats it in every benchmark, I don’t really feel this urge to upgrade simply because, in my day-to-day interaction with it, there’s nothing the iPad does that feels particularly slow or sluggish. (And I use my iPad a lot and for many different purposes — imagine a more casual user with the same hardware, how not pressed to upgrade he or she might be.)

3.

For MG Siegler, the reason for the slowing down of iPad sales is that it got too successful, too quickly, for its own good. Or rather, for Wall Street’s version of “its own good”. Read his article on Medium, The Astonishing, Disappointing iPad, because he makes a few fine points. I like that Siegler focuses a lot on putting figures in perspective, because when everyone’s playing armchair CEO, or parroting other pundits’ opinion, it’s easy to lose the sense of scale. Yes, there was a 16% drop compared to the same quarter a year ago, but ‘more than 16 million iPads sold in three months’ aren’t exactly the numbers of a failing product.

As a standalone business, just based on the last 12 months of revenue, the iPad would be in the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500. Think about that for a second. The iPad alone is bigger than almost all Fortune 500 companies.

4.

I’ll add a couple of great observations by Nick Heer in his On Peak iPad, which was written as a reaction to MG Siegler’s piece but in the end is more of a response to the aforementioned Gassée’s article:

The iPad is in use in environments where the PC has reigned supreme for over a decade, so it’s clearly a PC replacement in some contexts and for some people.

But consider the ways in which the iPad is being used in the “inspiring ads” that Gassée mentions. There are people using the product in loads of strange and wonderful places: on hockey rinks, inside wind turbines, aboard rescue helicopters, and so on. These are places where the PC has never had a stronghold or place, and where Microsoft Office is a hindrance, not a productivity suite. These are not niche use cases. These are places where the iPad shines.

And concludes:

There’s plenty of room for growing a four year old product category that has already found users in places PCs have only dreamt of going.

5.

In The iPad’s Curse, Ben Bajarin poses an interesting question: The iPad’s curse may be it can do many things well but does it do anything better? That is a key question. You know what I think? That what the iPad does better is exactly the fact that it can do many things well. The iPad, for me, shines exactly because of the staggering amount of things it does well — there is no other tablet capable of doing something like this. You may say that this or that other tablet are better than the iPad at performing certain tasks, but they lack the iPad’s overall versatility.

A lot of pundits seem obsessed to find a way for the iPad to be indispensable, to be this device that does that special task so wonderfully that people won’t even consider buying a PC. Instead, I think the iPad works marvellously in a supporting role. It’s the king of its middle ground: you can carry it with you to do tasks that once required you to bring a laptop or a netbook, and it’s definitely more comfortable than a smartphone when you have to type an email that’s longer than three sentences; when you want to play an action game which can only benefit from the iPad’s bigger screen; when you want to read ebooks; when you want to draw or paint… I can go on.

A smartphone is a great device for what I call ‘guerrilla usage’ — many different impromptu activities you can quickly perform with one hand, while walking, when idle at a bus stop or waiting somewhere, etc. All activities that make a smartphone the best tool for its (relatively) small size and practicality (one example for all: taking photos). But when I’m out and about with just my iPhone, for example, and I have time to sit and relax in a café, I’d like to have a bigger device for longer sessions of whatever I feel like doing (browsing, email, reading, writing, etc.) and the iPhone is not enough — and a 5-inch smartphone wouldn’t be enough either, sorry.

6.

Jared Sinclair has written a thought-provoking piece titled Giving Up On the iPad. He, like Bajarin, reflects on the iPad’s identity, and I think this is the central point of his piece:

The iPad can’t get better at these tasks without becoming either more like an iPhone or more like a Mac. For the iPad to become just as good as the iPhone, it would need to be smaller, equipped with a better camera, and sold with carrier subsidies and mobile data plans. But this would turn it into “just a big iPhone.” So this can’t be iPad’s future.

For the iPad to become just as good as the Mac, it would need to be larger, faster, equipped with expansion ports, and powered by software that supports legacy features like windowed applications and an exposed file system. But this would turn the iPad into a Macbook Pro with a touch screen and a detachable keyboard. This can’t be iPad’s future, either.

All his analysis is interesting and worth reading, but I don’t agree with his conclusion, that the future of the iPad is for it to disappear, absorbed at the low end by iPhones with large displays and at the high end by Macs running a more iOS-like flavor of OS X.

Again, here’s this urge to find the iPad some specific purpose, some thing it can do better than this device category or that other device category otherwise it’ll fade away.

If we want the iPad to be better at something, the answer is in the software, of course. Software truly optimised for the iPad. Software truly specialised for the iPad. I’m in full agreement with Federico Viticci when he writes (in The iPad, the Software, and the Screen:

To me, the iPad absolutely has a reason to exist from a hardware perspective. The main problem is that, currently, the iPad’s potential is being held back by a lack of advancements in software. My concern isn’t about a widespread disillusion with the tablet’s role in the marketplace, but the practical consequences of an operating system that isn’t letting people use the iPad as their only non-smartphone computer.

I also agree with Federico about certain iOS shortcomings like this:

There’s no easy way to work on a document with data from multiple apps, and if you try to manually move files around with iOS’ Open In menu, you end up with duplicates scattered across different app libraries. Apple sells iPads with 128 GB of storage, positioning them as being able to hold all your files and apps, and yet iCloud is expensive and doesn’t even offer plans that go beyond 50 GBs.

And with his conclusion:

The iPad is a fantastic portable device with a screen that offers a powerful balance between the iPhone and the Mac. I genuinely believe that, even with larger smartphones and lighter laptops, there will be a place for tablets that you can hold with your hands and carry around wherever and whenever you want. But if I had to pick an area where the iPad has been lacking – and where I think that Apple could do a better job in the next few years – that would be the software. Apple needs more key differentiators for iOS on the iPhone and iPad, and its software has a long way to go, especially on the larger screen.

He puts a lot of the blame on Apple for all the lack of innovation (or stagnancy) of iPad-oriented software, while

Developers can’t be blamed: many of them can’t use an iPad (and thus know the device) on a regular basis for their own work needs, and the lack of APIs to create apps that use the larger screen in new ways is an Apple problem, not a third-party one.

Eh, I don’t know about that. For a developer to make a decent, usable and interesting iPad app, I expect him/her to use an iPad on a regular basis and know the device, exactly because I don’t want to end up using something that’s simply an enlarged iPhone app. And as for apps that use the large screen in innovative ways, there’s a fair amount of them — some of them don’t share a single UI element (or very very few UI elements) with Apple’s iOS interface[1] — so no, I think it’s also a third-party problem and I wouldn’t be so fast in letting third-party developers off the hook.

Conclusion

Maybe there’s simply too much overthinking about this ‘lack of growth’ or ‘identity crisis’ of the iPad. It’s too early to say whether it’s a meaningful omen or not.

It’s always interesting to note the reactions from regular users when I talk with them about what tech pundits and analysts are discussing, and when I reported some points of this recent iPad debate, many raised an eyebrow or just scoffed or looked at me as if to say What the hell are they talking about? And many of them — believe me, I’ve seen them — are really happy with the iPad as it is right now; they don’t want it to be more like an iPhone or more like a Mac. There’s such an amazing variety of uses for the iPad out there that, in comparison, Apple’s ads and videos seem to offer only a rather limited example. In the end, MG Siegler said it best (and more briefly): Peak iPad? We’ll see.

 


 

  • 1. Just by taking a cursory look at the apps on my iPad, I’d say Digits, Tydlig, Coast by Opera, Status Board, FontBook, Feedly, Curator, Flipboard, Random, Storehouse, Snapseed; various drawing / sketching / painting apps like Paper by Fifty-Three, Vellum, Procreate, etc.; various music apps such as Rockmate, SoundPrism, Figure, 76 Synthesizer, Launchkey, Traktor DJ, Pacemaker; other apps like Edovia’s TouchPad, or Flight+… And I haven’t even looked inside my folders.

 

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing the Minigrooves ebook and/or subscribing to Vantage Point magazine. Thank you!