Don’t Give Up on the iPad

When people think about the first iconic Apple product, it’s probably the Macintosh that leaps to mind. But Apple Computer was actually built on the back of the Apple II. In fact, for quite a long while it was the Apple II that provided the profits that made the Macintosh possible, as Guy Kawasaki recounts:

(Note: Ironically, the video doesn’t work on an iOS device; is Vimeo really flash only? Anyhow, the video isn’t essential for the article)

If you squint you can see the parallels between the Mac and the iPad (although the iPad already provides far more revenue and profits than the Mac). In both cases you have the new machine, with a new interaction model, not selling as well as many think it ought to, and the same prescription for both: make it more like the old thing.

The Macintosh was eventually able to run Apple II software with the release of the Apple IIe card, but that actually had nothing to do with why the Macintosh finally broke through as Apple’s primary moneymaker. Rather, it was the advent of desktop publishing, made possible only because of the Mac’s unique GUI and mouse input. To put it another way, the Mac was legitimized by a type of application that could not have existed without the Mac, and thus, by definition, came along several years later.

This is worth keeping in mind when it comes to the iPad. After explosive early growth that outpaced even the iPhone the iPad has stalled, to put it kindly. Last quarter Apple sold 16.4m iPads, a 16% drop-off from the year-ago quarter. While a good portion of this difference was due to a different inventory situation after last year’s Mini shortage,1 even the most positive spin is one of no growth. And, predictably, the Internet is full of advice.

Jean-Louis Gassée got things started in earnest with an article entitled The iPad is a Tease:

The iPad represents about 20% of Apple’s revenue; allowing iPad numbers to plummet isn’t acceptable. So far, Apple’s bet has been to keep the iPad simple, rigidly so perhaps, rather than creating a neither-nor product: No longer charmingly simple, but not powerful enough for real productivity tasks. But if the iPad wants to cannibalize more of the PC market, it will have to remove a few walls.

Specifically, the iPad is a computer, it has a file system, directories, and the like — why hide these “details” from users? Why prevent us from hunting around for the bits and bobs we need to assemble a brochure or a trip itinerary?

This sounds suspiciously like the recommendation that the only thing holding the Macintosh back was its inability to run Apple II programs. It’s also of a piece with the vast majority of geek commentary on the iPad: multiple windows, access to the file system, so on and so forth.

I also think it’s misplaced.

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.

There is nothing in life that is not a tradeoff. My favorite example of this is multitasking in iOS. Up until iOS 4, when you exited an iOS app, it closed down completely; when you returned, you were back at the first screen. With iOS 4, your app’s state was finally kept in memory; for at least the last few apps, going back meant returning to the exact same spot you had left. An unequivocal win, right?

Well, no. iOS 4 came out in 2010, when my daughter was 3 years old, and for her it was a major step back. She had learned of her own volition that, whenever she didn’t know what to do – like how to leave a playing video, for example – all she needed to do was press the home button and restart the app; now she was back at a familiar place and could go where she wanted, such as to another video. After the update, though, it was incredibly enlightening to see her grow frustrated with my iPhone; her “Get Out of Jail Free” card – the home button – was no longer her saviour, because the app put her right back in the place she was trying to leave. That was the multitasking tradeoff.

To be clear, I think that was a tradeoff worth making. But I’m much less sure about other “features” that geeks are clamoring for, like multiple windows and access to the file system. It’s the absence of these features that makes the iPad so accessible to so many who have never felt comfortable with traditional computers; there is always a cost to complexity. Moreover, for those geeks clamoring for Mac features, why not just use a Mac? It was built explicitly with multi-windows, access to the file system, and a WIMP interface in mind, and the Mac hardware line right now is absolutely fantastic (and will be even better if WWDC features a Retina MacBook Air). 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.

That, though, is not the end game for the iPad, at least in my opinion. What I am most excited about are the new things the iPad will enable that simply wouldn’t have been possible on the Mac, just like desktop publishing wasn’t possible on the Apple II. We already see hints in specific niches, like art, music, and gaming. Apple’s ads point to some of these as well, featuring everything from photography to windmill maintenance to sumo wrestling. Obviously none of these have broken out to the degree necessary to drive significant growth, but the iPad has only been on the market for four years; the fact it’s already significantly outselling the Mac puts it far ahead of the Mac relative to the Apple II, and use cases need time to catch up with brand new possibilities.

Apple, though, does deserve some of the blame for the slower development of these new opportunities. Their reticence in enabling sustainable businesses on the app store makes building a business on apps, particularly new-to-the-world concepts, a risky proposition. This is unfortunate; after all, it was a 3rd party – Adobe – that truly drove desktop publishing. Unfortunately, the way Adobe treated Apple in the late 90s likely contributes to Apple’s current attitude towards developers, but it’s to Apple’s own long-term detriment.

Still, though, Apple has done well to preserve the structural simplicity of iOS,2 and I strongly urge them to keep that simplicity as their northern star, stalled growth and geek demands be damned. Something will sell iPads, and if you criticize me for not knowing what, then criticize all those who couldn’t have imagined desktop publishing in 1984.3

  1. I know this sounds like Tim Cook making excuses, but it’s a very real thing
  2. Even though the reduction of affordances in iOS 7 made the operating system unnecessarily harder to use
  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

38 thoughts on “Don’t Give Up on the iPad

  1. It’s interesting to consider where the tablet, and the iPad in particular, fit in the Digital Hub 2.0 strategy you previously outlined.

  2. Whole-heartedly agree with this. I feel like the dominant and most important use-cases for the iPad are still yet emerging. When you look at some of the key examples you’ve given Ben, I see immense room for improvement as the iPad continues to iterate.

    I also wonder if, just as the iPhone’s internal hardware had to come further before many key apps and functions could be fully realized… if this “next level” of iPad requires further hardware advancements beyond where the iPhone is currently at — in order to be fully realized. Just a thought, but I think more pixels, more fine-tuned sensitivity, more processing power, etc could fuel many more improved interactions.

    Also, greater Apple/3rd party support would help tremendously. The stylus experience is still fairly weak on iPad, imagine a quantum leap whereby teachers could easily grade papers or students could easily take notes right on the page with a stylus–completely replacing textbooks and becoming ubiquitous in the classroom. Or where artists could draw, paint or do other similar visual work on a more sensitive display that was every bit as rich and detailed as paper and ink. There is also still tremendous opportunity for music, media, gaming, and other types of apps.

    Overall, I hope Apple helps better support developers and continues to improve iPad hardware/software — I believe we’ve barely scratched the surface of the iPad’s amazing potential.

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  4. Andrew, that’s a great question; there’s no question the cloud plays a big part in connecting the iPad with your phone.

    And while it sounds like a cop-out, i’d go back to my last paragraph: the killer use case may not be there yet. I do think what is happening in music is very interesting to watch – there is an entire ecosystem around the iPad – and, interestingly, that actually pushes for a larger screen, but the same amount of on-screen simplicity.

  5. Ben – i wrote some of my own thoughts on the topic on linkedin yesterday and someone commented that only for children, the iPad (and tablets in general) offer truly a unique value prop. As I read your post and your anecdote about your kid it made me feel that maybe indeed this is where Apple should really focus the iPad for aka Education field – like they did around Desktop Publishing back then for the Mac.

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  7. There’s another angle here, which is; when desktop publishing arrived it pushed Mac sales from the tens and hundreds of thousands to low millions on a yearly basis. iPad is selling, in a disappointing quarter, 16.4 million. That type of scale, with that kind of pricing bracket, is not necessarily in need of a “killer use case”. Where I’m from, they call that one of the biggest businesses on earth. Consider that iPad in the holiday quarter sold nearly one for every 2 iPhones sold. That’s a remarkable figure for what is essentially an extension of the smartphone.

    The argument underscoring every think piece on iPad is the notion that it must only grow sales yoy. Maybe it doesn’t.

  8. “Air”, that’s the potential future of the iPad.

    Apple has a variety of “air” products – airport, airplay, airdrop.. and of course iCloud to (poorly, thus far) tie it all together. The common properties of the associated hardware devices – iPads and laptops – are slimness, light but powerful, and designed and built around increasingly faster wireless networking.

    I believe the potential lies not in making the iPad more complex for advanced features such as side-by-side apps but by making all these devices work together more effectively (via wireless networking) so that as one needs to do more advanced work, one may simply add devices. Airdrop is suggestive of this, and airplay has some very interesting potential in the long run.

    802.11/ac, airplay.. the iPad becomes a very flexible control surface of a much larger display. Want to write an article while copying and pasting links and snippets from your research material? Why not have two devices on your desk, being able to flick the information back and forth? These are the kinds of things I expect Apple to increasingly work towards now that the power of devices and speed of networking have finally caught up with such a vision. The glue lies in the “air” – the wireless network.

    Finally, I think any wearable that Apple brings into the mix will likely not have a display (not be a watch), but be focused on sensors for gestural input and beacon-type applications. Imagine walking up to a large wireless display. The wearable (Apple AirBand?) triggers the screen to pair with your iPad (or phone). You are now controlling an immersive, gesture and touchscreen controlled, networked/cloud enabled experience. Multi-device, completely new interaction modalities, new applications and solutions totally different from what we’re used to.

  9. The iPad does face more competition now from cheaper Android based tablets to phablets which may explain the iPad’s growth hitting a wall. For many use cases, those do provide an acceptable substitute for an iPad.

    I don’t think that making it more “capable” so that it can truly replace laptops makes sense. The iPad is still outselling Macs by four to one so make it more like a Mac would likely reduce sales. I understand the desire to differentiate it from the iPhone and other tablets in order to make the unsbubsidized premium easier to swallow. With the move to 64 bit, Apple could increase the RAM to 4GB or even higher. They could also boost the minimum storage to 32GB and be more generous with the complimentary iCloud storage.

    Speaking of iCloud, Apple should consider expanding it to a computing platform in order to remain competitive from an ecosystem perspective which is one of the reasons people choose iPads (and other iOS devices). Apple has struggled with iCloud (and Maps) and its predecessors so it might be best to let it be run independently if possible with enough capital to make key strategic acquisitions and hiring the top talent (maybe bite the bullet and make another attempt at acquiring Dropbox before they go public). One thing they could do with a more capable iCloud is provide virtual Mac (or Mac like) environment that people could run on their iPad with the results stored in iCloud so directly accessible to the iPad. Of course, that would be a premium service but might go a long way to allow people to use the iPad as their primary computing device. That would bring new meaning to Apple’s phrase “Back to the Mac”!

    Perhaps though Apple faces a bit of the Innovator’s Dilemma in that they would like every possible customer to buy an iPhone, iPad, and a Mac. I don’t think they should abandon the Mac but I wonder if selling them both creates artificial limitations on both products (the iPad and Mac). If the iPad didn’t exist, the Mac in some form could evolve into a touch based operating system and even run iOS apps alongside Mac apps. I am thinking of a Macbook Pro 13 inch retina with a detachable touch screen for tablet usage (it could virtualize iOS so act like an iPad and even include the A8 chip or whatever the current ARM based chip is).

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  12. My only point is that Apple’s imperative to grow doesn’t necessarily mean somehow getting iPad back to meteoric growth. If it’s iPad’s destiny to plateau at this point then it’s not the end of the world for Apple nor for the iPad. You say there isn’t a “killer use case”, but it seems to me everywhere I go I see iPads being used in places and ways PC’s never were. Ditto Apple’s marketing angle: it’s the pencil of computing. I’m not saying your notion is wrong but as a general computing appliance perhaps it isn’t destined for some overarching use-case that everybody will want to do. The things people love doing on computers are what they’re already doing with iPads.

    I think it’s the wearable-computing category that still seeks its spreadsheet/desktop publishing moment, and I think it’s in Apple’s discovery of that answer that’ll help lead it back to growth.

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