Apple Won’t Let the iPad Be an iPad

Posted on March 19, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in iOS with 0

Apple’s iPad is the best tablet on the market and by a wide margin. And yet the iPad has long since stopped meeting its maker’s goals, and in constantly shifting its strategy, Apple is now following, not leading the tablet market.

This is unfortunate and is, I think, a direct result of an inferiority complex that the prickly Steve Jobs deeply instilled in Apple and its current leadership. More specifically, creating the superior tablet wasn’t—still isn’t—enough for Apple.

This insecurity dates back to the original iPad, when Steve Jobs—as described in his official biography—was rankled by (fair) complaints that iPad was only a consumption device. He had approached Apple’s rationale for iPad gingerly, rhetorically asking the presentation audience whether there was “room” for a device between a phone and a PC. And Apple’s answer was yes, qualified by Jobs’s belief that such a device must be better at key tasks than either of the other device types.

Those tasks included browsing the web, doing email, enjoying and sharing photos, watching videos, enjoying your music collection, playing games, and reading e-books. (You’ll note that all of these are essentially consumption-based, but whatever. Technologies evolve.)

The original iPad and its successor, the sleek iPad 2, were instant successes, and it appeared that Apple had indeed created yet another new market. Competitors raced to ship their own iPad-like tablets, and since most were based on Android, they were clunky and mostly unsuccessful. So for a few years, Apple owned the tablet market it had created.

Aside from the normal evolutionary changes one might expect on both sides—Apple added basic productivity functionality to iPad by creating iWork apps, and Android improved for those tablets, with device makers making ever-more-elegant hardware—two things happened that caught Apple by surprise, interrupting the iPad victory parade.

I’m referring of course to mini-tablets and then phablets. These are two very successful device types that Apple did not invent, did not seeing coming, and did not respond to quickly. And ever since these two new product types shattered the tablet market that Apple had created, the company has been floundering to right things for iPad.

Apple was late to market with the iPad mini, for example, releasing a product that Jobs himself had ridiculed, noting that these mini-tablets should come with sandpaper so that users could make their fingertips smaller. The irony here is that the iPad mini was immediately—and still is—the very best mini-tablet on the market.

But by the time Apple jumped into mini-tablets, users were already clamoring for yet another new device type, the phablet. Samsung and other Android makers—again, not Apple—pushed aggressively with new lineups of huge smart phones, now called phablets, that made the 3.5-inch screen on the iPhone look like a postage stamp by comparison. More to the point, phablets eliminated the need for that third device: If you could buy a big phone, you wouldn’t need a tablet at all.

Apple, again, was late to the market with its iPhone Plus. Ironically, this device is of course the best phablet on the market today, as it was when it was first launched in 2014. (Some may disagree on that point; that’s my opinion.) But in righting the iPhone ship, so to speak, Apple continued to do harm to iPad, which has become less and less necessary over the years.

Apple is now in the midst of the 8th straight quarter—two straight years—during which iPad sales have fallen. Not “slowed,” but fallen. And while the device remains the best selling tablet (and mini-tablet) in the market, Apple’s market share has likewise been falling as consumers who do want/need this kind of consumption device have turned to cheaper (usually Android-based) alternatives. While these devices are objectively successful, when looked at within the confines of Apple’s self-imposed expectations, the iPad is nothing short of a failure. Apple has not created a third market that rivals that of phones (not even close) or PCs.

PCs, of course, have had their own sales issues over the past few years. Over in the Microsoft camp, everyone’s favorite software giant innovated with, and formalized, a new market of its own: The 2-in-1, a special and new kind of PC that sports a multitouch screen, optional pen support, and some kind of transforming form factor. This can be a tablet body that clips to a keyboard base. Or it can be a convertible laptop, where the device transforms into various modes of operation without detaching. Microsoft’s entry, of course, is called Surface.

2-in-1s are the only part of the tablet market that are growing. So now Apple is chasing Surface and, more generally, the 2-in-1 PC. And naturally, given the relative sales volumes, it has turned once again to iOS, and not Mac OS X, for this new device. Last fall, it released the iPad Pro, a gigantic iPad with a Surface-like clip-on keyboard base and a Surface-like pen called Pencil. The iPad Pro is expensive—it’s an Apple product—and it has done nothing to stem the sales shortfall that has now dogged iPad for two long years.

So this coming week, Apple will replace its current full-sized tablet, the iPad Air, with a new iPad Pro model that features a 9.7-inch screen and can work with a Surface-like clip-on keyboard base and a Surface-like Pencil. This transformation will necessitate a $100 price hike on all models. That’s a lot of money when you consider that iPad Air was already expensive at $500 to $1000 a pop.

Apple, wake up. No one was asking for a more expensive iPad Air. And while evolving iPad to successfully complete more and more productivity tasks is natural enough, no one was really asking for an iPad laptop either. (People have been asking for a Mac that supports multi-touch and comes in a 2-in-1 form factor, but Apple is curiously deaf to this need.)

The problem, aside from hubris, is iOS.

When Apple created the first, consumption-focused iPad, using iOS made all the sense in the world, and the firm did a good job of helping developers upsize their apps to the new screen size. But iPad Pro, in either size, is a bridge too far: The gap between iOS’s capabilities and the needs of such a device is just too great. I’m sure Apple will get there eventually, but in this one case, Microsoft’s approach with Surface—take a more powerful but complex desktop OS and downsize it for devices–was the right choice. Apple just got outmaneuvered by the slowest-moving company in personal technology.

But there is one other thing that Microsoft gets right that Apple just can’t grasp: Humility. For all of its past faults, the Microsoft of today is indeed a humbled company and because they are no longer in a dominant market position, they have to actually listen to what customers want and act accordingly. What a concept.

By comparison, Apple can only manage what I call “faux humility,” the appearance of being humble while you lord over the world. This is the company that doesn’t do focus groups and then tells you what you need, and it was right enough times it has ignored the many times it’s been wrong. The only thing Apple is really humbled by is by how many devices they sell. And even that comes off as arrogant.

Apple’s current arrogance meets and exceeds anything Microsoft did in the 1990s, and by continually following competitors in the tablet market—with mini-tablets, with phablets, and now with 2-in-1s—all Apple is doing is proving that it cannot innovate anymore, cannot lead, and cannot listen to its own customers.

Apple, this one is simple. The iPad can be a Mac-level success story and sell millions of units a month if you’ll just let it be what it really is: A mostly consumption-focused device with a bigger screen than a phablet. And in this guise, as I noted early, the iPad really is superior to anything else on the market. Especially the iPad mini, which I find “right-sized” for personal consumption scenarios.

I have a hard time understanding why iPad needs to be more than that. But Apple has an even harder time justifying why it disagrees.