iPad at a Crossroads

Shortly after Apple’s new iPhone 6 models went on sale in September, the company proudly announced that they had sold over 10 million units in the first weekend, a significant improvement over the 9 million units they sold at the launch of the previous models. Similarly, after about a week of the company’s Apple Pay system being publicly available, CEO Tim Cook gleefully touted that, in just its first three days, new users had activated over 1 million credit cards on the system. “That is remarkable momentum,” remarked The New York Times, dryly.

Between these two events, on 17 Oct, two new models of the company’s iPad line were also announced. It’s now more than ten days after they went on sale, and yet there have been no sales figure announcements, no bragging about new record-breaking numbers of iPads pre-ordered, no new milestones in adoption reached. There’s just silence. In and of itself that might not be remarkable, but the lack of news around sales numbers seems especially suspicious given that iPad sales have declined now for three quarters in a row.

iPad Air 2

What conclusion can we draw from this? It’s impossible to say definitively without Apple’s guidance, but it seems likely that the new iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 have not re-ignited the line, that their initial sales fell short of expectations. This would not be a surprise; almost as soon as it debuted, critics derided the iPad Mini 3 as a paltry upgrade over the iPad Mini 2. And while the iPad Air 2 was in fact a technological improvement over its own predecessor, it’s not a satisfying response to the most urgent challenge facing the whole line: that of customers asking, “Why do I need an iPad? What would I use it for?”

In fact, that has been the existential question facing the iPad since its first days. That it remains unanswered four years later, amid declining numbers, represents a notable, rare failure of execution on Apple’s part.

The iPad does a million things well, but none of them so well that customers have come to regard it as a critical, must-have—and must-upgrade—device. A lot has been said about customers opting to hang on to iPads longer than phones, and there’s some truth to that. But peel back that reason just a bit and the core problem is revealed: Apple has not given customers sufficient reason to upgrade every year or two, the way they have done with the iPhone, where upgrades almost feel compulsory.

There’s even an argument to be made that the company has fallen down on the job of innovating in the iPad line. The distinctive features of the iPad Air 2—a dramatically thinner profile, a dramatically faster processor—are largely hardware based. Improved specs matter, but Apple knows better than anyone that computing technology doesn’t win the market on specifications. What wins is superb software that makes people recognize how their lives could be made better by owning the underlying hardware. Over at The Verge, Nilay Patel cannily captures this lapse in Apple product development as part of his review of the iPad Air 2:

If the hardware of the iPad Air 2 demonstrates the overwhelming power of small iterative improvements, then the software represents the failings of that approach. The overall experience of using the iPad Air 2 in 2014 is a case study in missed opportunities and untapped potential. Apple has all but stopped adding tablet-specific features to iOS—the minor two-paned mode for landscape apps on the iPhone 6 Plus is a more significant rethinking of how to manage a larger screen size than anything added to the iPad Air 2 this year.

In many ways, the iPad has become exactly what many of its critics said it was in the beginning: just a big iPhone without its own phone number. And now, with the oversized iPhone 6 Plus on the market and in such high demand that it’s still back-ordered, the iPad isn’t even the most interesting oversized iPhone anymore. For the millions of people who bought new iPhones in September, the prospect of buying a larger, less capable version of the same device understandably lacks appeal.

To be clear, I’m making this argument as a long-term believer in the potential of tablets in general, and in the iPad in particular. Three years ago I built a company based on that potential. When it failed, I came back to the platform late last year and convinced Adobe to use what I had learned to let me take another crack at building an iPad app for designers. I’m also an inveterate user of my own iPad; anecdotally what I hear more than anything else is that people rarely use the iPads they already own, but I use mine multiple times a day, every day. And naturally I pre-ordered the iPad Air 2 as soon as it was available.

So as an iPad enthusiast, when I consider the struggles that the iPad has experienced lately, I find myself frustrated by Apple’s seeming inattention to its pressing needs. But I’m also frustrated by what appears to be the company’s own lack of understanding of what they have wrought with the iPad.

This device has opened a door to a new kind of interaction with technology, something much, much different than what has come before, something not fully understood yet. But Apple seems less interested in coming to grips with that, and more focused on demonstrating that the iPad is a great device to replicate other things: reading print magazines, drawing and painting with “real” art supplies, or duplicating existing desktop workflows. Apple’s own iWork apps for the iPad are prime examples; they’ve ostensibly been made iPad-friendly but in practice they’re oddly reworked versions of software that just works better on the desktop.

And that may be the best summarization of the way that Apple seems to think about software on these devices: they believe apps should be optimized where really they should be reimagined. To be fair, Apple does occasionally show signs of understanding this. The video-editing app Replay, which was demoed alongside the new iPads earlier this month, shows that kind of reimagination at work. Replay looks nothing like iMovie, Final Cut or Premiere, and yet its appeal is clear: it’s a streamlined reinvention of the video editing process, powered by computer vision and underpinned with the understanding that workflows should not just be simpler on the iPad, they should be effortless.

That’s exactly the ambition that guides Project LayUp, my collaboration with Adobe, but until it launches it would be premature to claim any kind of success. Whether LayUp pulls it off or not, I do believe that the cure for Apple’s iPad woes will not be thinner, more powerful hardware alone, but also a whole new class of apps that take a completely different tack to imagining how people can work with computing technology.

What will it take to get there? The short answer is a new commitment from Apple to this product line, and a willingness to reexamine the company’s entire approach to date. For instance, I’m not entirely sure it’s in the best interest of the iPad to be tied so closely to the iPhone. Ultimately, a more aggressive branching of the iPad’s operating system away from the iPhone’s operating system may be necessary. Doing so may be the only way that Apple starts to answer the critical questions at the heart of the line: “What, exactly, is unique about the iPad? What can it do better than any other device? And why can’t customers live without it?”


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