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 []