Ah, the irony. From its original announcement in 2010, Apple has doggedly insisted that the iPad remain “simple,” thus arbitrarily limiting its considerable potential as a content creation and production tool. Adding functionality like windowing, real multitasking, file level directory access, mouse support, standard USB connectivity, and global word or phrase search has been stubbornly resisted, even after Apple started pitching the tablet computer as a tool for enterprise and institutional users a couple of years ago.
For a while it looked like the future would be all sweetness and light for the iPad, which quickly became Apple’s fastest-selling product ever, even eclipsing the iPhone. Then in the latter half of 2013, iPad sales started to slump, and have continued to do so ever since — quarter after quarter, with Mac laptop sales now outdistancing the tablet and the iPhone way out in front.
Various theories of why the sudden change of fortune have been advanced, such as that people are having trouble identifying uses for the device. That seems a bit nonsensical given the iPad’s initial three-plus years of robust sales during which iPadders evidently had no difficulty in finding uses and tasks for the beguiling machine.
My deduction is that one “problem” is more that the iPad is just too good for Apple’s own good, although a great value for consumers. The high build quality and solid engineering makes the hardware last and last, so iPad sales hit the wall once most people who want one had one and the low-hanging fruit of early adoption had been picked. The iPad is built like an iPhone, but generally tends to be used in less physically challenging and hostile environments, so replacement impetus due to wear or damage is much less of a factor.
Moreover, that dedication to simplicity discussed above generally makes the stuff people do with their iPads not terribly demanding in terms of computing power, so even first and second generation iPads are still adequately powerful for that sort of tasking.
I used my first iPad — an iPad 2 — for three and a half years before replacing it with an iPad Air 2 last fall. Toward the end, I was getting a bit frustrated with the iPad 2′s performance, but I’m an iPad power-user. My wife, who inherited the old iPad, finds it more than adequate for her needs. A lot of iPad 2s, as well as original iPad minis which are also powered by A5 CPUs, are still in active duty, and indeed Apple is still selling the original mini as a price leader.
So it seems clear that a large element of the iPad sales slowdown is attributable to less incentive to upgrade than is the case with iPhones or even Macs.
Another factor is the arrival of a larger-screen Apple smartphone, AKA phablet — the iPhone 6 Plus — which some users deem adequate to eliminate the need for a dedicated tablet device at all, an which is believed to be significantly cannibalizing iPad mini sales in particular, leading to speculation that the mini may be on the bubble for termination. I hope not, and using a 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus screen for tablet duty appeals to me not in the slightest, but many obviously are otherwise persuaded.
Meanwhile, the iPad is also under pressure in-house from the other end of the spectrum, with the release of the new 12-inch MacBook which is not tremendously larger or heavier than the original iPads were, but runs OS X or even Windows if you’re so inclined. Of course the new MaxBook is significantly more expensive than an iPad, but the base 11-inch MacBook Air which at $899 (often discounted by resellers) is in the same price point ballpark as higher-end iPads (128GB iPad w/cellular: $829), and has the same full Macintosh capability and versatility as the MacBook.
In this tableau, one patch of blue sky for the iPad is enterprise and institutional users’ burgeoning interest in tablets and business apps such as the IBM Mobile First software that is being developed jointly by IBM and Apple under the landmark collaboration agreement entered into by the two companies last year.
Consequently, I’m finding Apple’s continued stonewalling of productivity-oriented iPad users longtime feature request list difficult to understand, although my guess is that i stems from a misplaced determination to keep the iOS uniform for both the iPad and iPhone. Macworld’s Michael Simon observed this week, “Year after year, Apple has stopped short of adding iPad-only features, and as iOS matures, very little about it feels as though it was built with a tablet-sized screen in mind…. Multitasking on iOS amounts to little more than switching between apps via the carousel [which] pales in comparison to multitasking on OS X. Its one of the starkest differences between the way we work on our Macs and our tablets; something as simple as copying text or comparing images requires several steps on the iPad, and the constant back-and-forth motion stymies any real attempt at multitasking.”
Seth Weintraub at 9To5Mac agrees , noting that “Split screen iPad support and other laptop-like functionality is late in coming. If those features come out this year, and I think they will, a lot of professionals will jump on board. Currently functionality that makes an iPad a better solution to a problem than a laptop is often lacking…. there is often something important that I can only do well on my Mac, and this has happened so many times that… if I lost my iPad Air this week, I’d probably replace it with a MacBook.”
I hope Weintraub is right about laptop-lke functionality coming, and that Apple is working right now on adding some content creator friendly functionality to iOS 9 for release later this year, but I’m not holding my breath in anticipation. I’ll be delighted if it does come to pass.
There are also the rumors that a 12-inch iPad Pro is in the works, although recently it’s being suggested that such a machine, if it exists, won’t be released until sometime in 2016. However, if the professional iPad turns out to be just an iPad Air 3 (or whatever the next iPad is called) with a larger panel and with the same productivity limitations that have afflicted iPads these past five years, I find it hard to imagine it being more than a modest success at best. Without windowing to take advantage of the more expansive display, for example I would not be very tempted to upgrade from my iPad Air 2.
The 12-inch MacBook’s adoption of USB-C for pretty well all port functions, including charging and video out as well as data I/O points the way for Apple to standardize on that with the iPad as well instead of non-standard Lightning.
I gave Apple the benefit of doubt in upgrading to the iPad Air 2 last fall, despite frustration over Apple’s continued foot-dragging on providing the features that would make the tablet much less compromised as a production tool. I love the iPad for the many things it does well, but the things it does poorly or can’t do at all are an abiding source of annoyance and lost efficiency.
Since the Air 2 was released, Microsoft has introduced the competitively-priced Surface 3 tablet PC, which runs the full desktop version of Windows, and can function as a full-featured laptop as well as a tablet thus making it a much more productivity nurturing tool. Notwithstanding Tim Cook’s dismissive analogy about combining toasters and refrigerators, a lot of users, including me, find the versatility of tablet/laptop hybrids an attractive attribute, and if Windows 10 even halfway lives up, to its hype, it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. Surface sales are a fraction of iPad volume, even after the latter’s extended slump, but they are growing while the iPad’s are shrinking, and it would be interesting to know what the take up ratio would be currently between Surface and iPad in the enterprise sub-category.
If when tablet upgrade time rolls around for me a couple of years or so from now, Apple still is ignoring the feature needs of productivity oriented tablet users, the Surface is going to be hard to resist.