Much ado about the iPad, Part 2

According to the numbers released by Apple outlining its Q4 2014 quarterly results [Q4 2014 Unaudited Summary Data PDF], iPad sales are slowly receding — 12.3 million units sold in Q4 2014, compared with the 13.2 million units sold in Q3 2014 and the 14 million units sold in Q4 2013.

Never mind Apple sold more than 12 million iPads in the quarter where it introduced new models, the iPad has to be doomed, something must be wrong with the iPad. At least, according to various pundits. I’ve pretty much shared my thoughts on this matter back in May when I wrote Much ado about the iPad, but there are passages in articles I’ve read that rubbed me the wrong way a little, so here are my reactions.

The meaning of ‘Post-PC era’

The first article catching my eye was Lukas Mathis’ Wherefore art thou iPad?, but before I get to Mathis’ remarks, the article opens with a quote from Dr Drang’s I and iPad:

Finally, there’s the big problem: storage. How does someone on a iPad access all of the photos and music and video and other files that are part of the modern digital life that Apple wants us to lead? None of us can be post-PC until all of our stuff is where we can get at it without a PC. That there’s been no clean, obvious, and reliable solution to this problem is definitely Apple’s fault, and it’s kept the iPad from being a complete PC replacement.

Two things: firstly, to be a bit pedantic, Post-PC era has never really meant Now let’s all get rid of our computers and start using tablets as the sole computing devices. Steve Jobs didn’t say this, either in 2007 or later in 2010. The Wikipedia entry for Post-PC era contains interesting passages on the matter (emphasis mine):

At an interview alongside Bill Gates at the 5th All Things Digital conference in 2007, Steve Jobs further described a concept similar to Gates’ “PC Plus” known as a “post-PC device”; “a category of devices that aren’t as general purpose, that are really more focused on specific functions, whether they’re phones or iPods or Zunes or what have you. And I think that category of devices is going to continue to be very innovative and we’re going to see lots of them”. Jobs felt that despite these developments, PCs would “continue to be with us and morph with us, whether it’s a tablet or a notebook or, you know, a big curved desktop that you have at your house or whatever it might be.” Gates suggested the prevalence of multiple form factors for such devices, including full-sized tablets, small phones, and 10-foot experiences for the living room.

In June of 2010, at the D8 conference, while being interviewed by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, Jobs compared tablets and PCs to cars and trucks, saying “[PCs are] still going to be around. They’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used by like one out of x people.” while predicting that the vast majority of people will eventually use tablets as a primary computing device, analogous to the majority of people who drive cars. Directly conflicting Apple’s previous “digital hub” strategy centered around the Macintosh PC, Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s iCloud platform in 2011, which provides cloud storage for data that can be automatically synced between iOS products and PCs. iOS 5, released concurrently with iCloud, also removed the platform’s dependency on a PC for first-time setup, syncing, and software updates. Jobs explained that iCloud would replace the PC as the “hub” for a user’s devices with online servers—all of a user’s devices, including a PC, would be able to automatically synchronize and access media and other files between platforms. Apple’s current CEO Tim Cook continued to elaborate on the concept that a PC would no longer have to be the center of one’s digital life, considering them to be a “device” on the same level as any portable device that a particular user owns. Cook also explained that mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones would be “more portable, more personal and dramatically easier to use than any PC has ever been.”

The concept that a PC would no longer have to be the centre of the user’s personal digital hub was first explained by Jobs at the Back to the Mac Apple event in October 2010, if I remember correctly.

When talking about the ‘Post-PC era,’ this above has always been my takeaway — that in this era, the PC would progressively lose focus/weight as primary device and become just another personal device, along with smartphones, tablets, etc. Not that the PC would be completely replaced by these other devices.

My second objection to Dr Drang’s quote is that, while I think he has a point regarding the lack of a “clean, obvious, and reliable solution” to the problem of storage, we should also see things under another perspective. Let’s consider the ‘iPad as PC replacement’ when it’s given to someone instead of a computer. Or when someone purchases an iPad instead of a netbook (or whatever the 2014 equivalent of a netbook is called). In other words, let’s consider all those people who are not power users or who only use a PC at the office, and who see the iPad as a good-enough alternative to a laptop or ultra-portable-something for their personal use. These users (and there are a lot of them) start accumulating videos, photos, music, and document files either produced directly on the iPad or purchased through the iPad. The typical situation I’ve witnessed is that the user keeps part of these files on the device itself, and the rest is stored online in the cloud. Apart from Apple’s iCloud, the solutions for online storage and synchronisation are many: there’s Dropbox, Box, SpiderOak, SugarSync, Tresorit, just to name the first coming to mind; plus the cloud solutions offered by Microsoft and Google.

In other words, for people who, say, own a smartphone, use a PC at work, and feel that buying a desktop or laptop computer for themselves is a bit overkill, the iPad (or — why not? — a Surface) may be a viable alternative even storage-wise. For those who have always owned a computer and have accumulated gigabytes and gigabytes of data over the years, stored in their computer’s internal drives and in various external drives, leaving all behind and switching to an iPad-only solution is simply unfeasible storage-wise[1], and I’m not sure it’s fair to blame Apple here.

Is an iPhone (good) enough?

Back to Lukas Mathis’ article now. Lukas writes:

Apple’s behavior severely limits the types of apps that are available on iOS. Whether it is due to actual restrictions, or just due to fear on the part of developers, there are a lot of «safe» apps on iOS, but very few apps that try to break the mold of what people expect from their devices. You get a lot of games, podcast clients, todo lists, camera apps, text editors, things like these — but not a lot of stuff that colors outside of these lines.

Mathis is not the first to voice this complaint. In this whole ‘The iPad is a limited device’ debate, I keep wondering: So, which groundbreaking apps should we see? Which are these apps the iPad desperately needs to find its true identity? It’s a genuine question, because I’ve really seen a lot of different apps that take advantage of the iPad’s form factor and features, especially on the creative front (painting, drawing, music making, etc.) but not limited to it.

None of these app types work substantially better on larger screens. In fact, there are very few apps on iOS that you really need an iPad for if you want to get the most out of them. […] Hence, there is very little reason to own an iPad if you already own an iPhone. Unfortunately, the primary target audience of iPads — people who are inside Apple’s ecosystem — probably do already own an iPhone.

In short, if you have an iPhone, and you want a second, more powerful device, why would it be an iPad? There’s almost nothing you can do on an iPad that you can’t do on an iPhone. It’s just as restricted as the iPhone, and as a result, can’t differentiate itself from the iPhone. But at the same time, the iPad is less portable, and lacks the phone features of the iPhone.

I couldn’t disagree more. In my article commenting what Apple introduced at the September 9 event, I wrote:

Yes, a big phone is certainly more comfortable for things like browsing the Web, handling email, reading ebooks and magazines, consulting maps and directions; being able to see and read more information at a time is a good thing, no doubt. Less panning and zooming, etc. Perhaps the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus will slow down the sales of the 7.9-inch iPad mini, and perhaps more people who currently own, say, an iPad mini and a 3.5- or 4-inch iPhone, will just upgrade to an iPhone 6 Plus and get rid of the small tablet.

And yet I don’t think tablets are necessarily ‘doomed’ or have lost their reason to exist. I’m drawing and painting using apps like Paper by 53 or Procreate. I’m playing games like Simogo’s DEVICE6 or Square Enix’s Hitman GO. I’m editing a spreadsheet with Apple’s Numbers. I’m writing an article or a short story with The Soulmen’s Daedalus Touch. Or annotating a PDF with GoodReader. Or improvising a tune in GarageBand or creating a beat with Propellerhead’s Figure. Or making a mix with apps like Traktor DJ. These are all activities that I really can’t picture myself doing on a big iPhone instead of an iPad (especially a 9.7-inch iPad, but also an iPad mini). Some of these activities, in my opinion, are just perfect for a tablet — not a big phone, and not a laptop either. Even moderate photo editing can be more fun on a tablet instead of a big phone or laptop[2]. The UI is simply better on an iPad. The hardware is more balanced for certain activities such as drawing, sketching, mapping, painting (especially when done with a stylus). The user experience is overall better. Let’s consider this before rushing to the conclusion that tablets are already behind the times.

To me, the iPad’s raison d’être is still the same that urged me to purchase it two years ago: it’s the sweet spot between a smartphone and a laptop. More comfortable than my iPhone for reading, drawing, painting, making music, playing games, writing, watching videos/movies, surfing the Web, and so on and so forth. Less portable than my iPhone but way more portable than my MacBook Pro for doing some of the less complex or convoluted tasks, and way more fun than my MacBook Pro for drawing and painting and playing certain games and reading PDF documents and books, above all.

Sure, in theory Mathis is right: There’s almost nothing you can do on an iPad that you can’t do on an iPhone. But in practice — and I speak from personal experience as owner of various Macs, an iPhone and a 9.7-inch iPad — in practice plenty of what you do on an iPad is undoubtedly more comfortable to do than on an iPhone (no matter how big). Again, assuming a well-designed iOS universal app, the user experience tends to be better on the iPad. Controls are more comfortable, targets are bigger and more reachable, considering you use an iPad almost always with two hands.

I typically use the iPhone for quick tasks, things that don’t take much of my time and are soon out of the way. The few exceptions involve messaging apps, photo apps, Google Maps, listening to music (or radio or the occasional podcast). But there are a lot of other tasks (and apps involving such tasks) that, while certainly doable on the iPhone’s smaller screen, aren’t that much enjoyable, at least for me. Sure, I can browse the Web, do email, read some news[3], even read books or draw a tiny picture, but the iPhone feels too cramped for such things (with the possible exception of the iPhone 6 Plus). That’s why I bring the iPad with me as often as I can when I’m out and about and I know I’ll be staying for a while somewhere (coffee shop, library, someone’s office, etc.). For me, my iPhone is invaluable for checking information or spending brief moments with the occasional time killer, but it’s not ideal for medium or long sessions inside any app. Everything starts feeling cramped soon, I get impatient, and crave for the bigger touch surface of my regular-size iPad.

Finally, as an addendum, Mathis links to Ben Thompson’s The diminished iPad, which is a great piece, but again, I can’t fully agree with certain defeatist tones I felt here and there, especially in the quotes from “SammyWalrusIV”. Take this one, for example:

Why buy an iPad when you could have an iPhone with a screen that doesn’t seem that much smaller than an iPad mini? Why buy an iPad when you can have a more powerful and just as easily transportable Macbook Air?

I think I’ve already answered to the first question. Anyway, here’s a picture of the iPhone 6, 6 Plus and iPad mini, and you can judge their screen sizes for yourselves (I think the iPhone 6 Plus’s screen is still smaller enough when you put it side by side with an iPad mini). Since we’re all basically drawing from personal experience and statistics, I can say that among my friends and acquaintances there are way more people willing to stay with an iPhone + iPad setup rather than go for the iPhone 6 Plus and leave the iPad behind. Again, the plural of anecdote isn’t data, and the only undeniable datum is that iPad sales are receding. I maintain my ‘optimistic’ angle and say that fewer iPads sold doesn’t necessarily mean the iPad is going nowhere. As I said in Much ado about the iPad, “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.” Older iPads keep doing their job just fine, especially with apps that don’t require cutting-edge performance. Add to the fact that, to this day, the only iPad model Apple has actively obsoleted is the original iPad, stuck at iOS 5.1.1… Many people are still making the most of their second-, third- and fourth-generation iPads, all capable of running iOS 8 rather well.

But the new iPad Air 2 has a lot of new characteristics that make for a compelling upgrade for people like me who own a heavier, pre-Air form factor iPad. It’s thinner and much lighter; the sheer CPU/GPU performance is breathtaking; then there’s the much better camera optics; then there’s the Touch ID technology… I’m very, very interested in seeing how iPad sales are going to be in Q1 2015. Perhaps this is the iPad model capable of reversing the trend and urging people to update.

The hardware alone is not enough, and Mathis, Dr Drang, Ben Thompson et al. are of course right on this front (although I keep seeing new apps for iPad that, while not groundbreaking, are certainly much more fun to play with than on an iPhone). But let’s go back to the second question posed by SammyWalrusIV: Why buy an iPad when you can have a more powerful and just as easily transportable Macbook Air?

Well, there’s the price (iPad Air 2 starts at $499, MacBook Air at $899, and yes, there are people out there with tight budgets), but that question has also got me thinking about something else, actually: the missing keyboard.

The missing keyboard

I am absolutely convinced that Apple should produce a thin, hardware keyboard tailored for the iPad Air line. A keyboard that could tightly and uniquely integrate with both the hardware and the operating system, transforming the iPad into a small laptop à la Microsoft Surface (and better). In my experience using my iPad with the Apple Wireless Keyboard (see A week with the iPad-as-laptop setup), I was frustrated by a certain usability friction, mainly because I expected to control specific parts of iOS’s interface with the keyboard, and when that did not happen, the result was an awkward user experience, with things working on the keyboard as expected, and others requiring me to stop typing and start scrolling or swiping via the Multi-touch interface. In my article I wrote:

The frustration came essentially from the generally poor key mapping and user-interaction obscurity.

If Apple bothered more to increase compatibility between iOS and an input device the company itself produces, using the iPad as a lightweight laptop would be a better, more fulfilling experience overall. For instance, why not have the Enter key (or a combination such as Option-Enter or Command-Enter) work the same way it works on the Mac, where it can be used as confirmation in dialog boxes? When using Messages on the iPad, I could write my messages on the physical keyboard, but had to reach the screen and tap on Send every damn time. Having full keyboard support in instances like this could be a time-saver. It’s just natural to hit Enter as confirmation (‘send message’) and I often found myself pausing to remember I had to split the action of writing (hands on keyboard) from the action of sending (hand on screen to interact via touch).

But the best keyboard shortcut Apple could implement when using an Apple keyboard with iOS devices is, in my opinion, Command-Tab to activate the multitasking interface. I believe that, by now, every Mac user’s muscle memory has Command-Tab ingrained as a means to quickly switch between different active apps (and — correct me if I’m wrong — even Windows users have a similar shortcut memorised). I certainly have: while working on the iPad I can’t enumerate the number of times my fingers instinctively hit Command-Tab to switch from, say, iA Writer, to Mail or Safari. Having to reach the Home button and double click it every time became rapidly a pain and another unwanted interruption of the workflow.

Now, imagine a new iPad Air Smart keyboard — maybe even doubling as a cover — much more integrated with iOS and offering a more seamless and consistent user experience overall. A keyboard that, once attached, would interact with the system in a more Mac-like fashion, mapping actions such as the ones I described above in a functional, more predictable way, so that users can keep their hands on the keyboard without having to stop now and again to swipe here, scroll there, or double-click the Home button to invoke the multitasking interface. You’ve finished writing that piece? ⌘-Q and you’re back in the Springboard. Want to check the Today View or any missed notifications while you’re typing inside an app? Tap F12, or ⌥-Down arrow, or better, assign a keyboard shortcut to the action. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. I know, Apple could simply add these functionalities to iOS 8 and that would be enough to increase the compatibility with a lot of third-party keyboards, but you can’t deny the appeal of also having a keyboard for the iPad made by Apple. Who knows, maybe with such an accessory, more people would start considering an iPad Air 2 over a MacBook Air. Just a thought.

Conclusion

We are all overthinking the iPad.

 


  • 1. And yet, this unfeasibility is going to be less and less pronounced as time passes — that’s my hope, at least — because when online storage becomes even cheaper than it is now, all those services I mentioned will offer larger storage tiers and, in theory, allowing users to put their stuff there until [it] is where we can get at it without a PC, to quote Dr Drang again.
  • 2. And now we have Pixelmator for iPad, further corroborating my point.
  • 3. Unread for iPhone made me go back to reading RSS feeds on the iPhone, because it’s an excellently designed app that makes reading a joy. But as soon as the iPad version was released, I went back to reading feeds on the iPad most of the time.

 

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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 my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!