The future of iPad

At that time, netbooks had a strong market presence. Apple was pressured to respond but the company was loath to embrace the chintzy plastic, slow performance, low battery life and particularly the cramped keyboard of the netbook's heyday. Indeed, the iPad was to the netbook what the iPhone was to the BlackBerry -- a rejection of compromised input at the expense of software-defined touch display.

Steve Jobs called out some of the tasks at which the iPad would excel -- e-mail, the Web, video, games and books. Of course, that was just the beginning. Tens of thousands of apps appeared that took advantage of the iPad's increased display real estate and helped it to maintain significant market share advantages over less expensive competitors.

But it's classic business wisdom that companies and products that live "in the middle" tend to get crushed. That certainly happened to netbooks. And now, five years after its introduction, the iPad is beginning to feel the pressure of the growing iPhone 6 Plus from below and the incredible shrinking MacBook from above. With the new 12" MacBook, the competition has become fiercer than ever. The laptop is "inspired" by the iPad the way the body snatchers were inspired by their humans.

How, then, can the iPad fight back against its friendly (and not-so-friendly) competitors? Microsoft decided long ago that the tablet's fate is to be some component of a more capable computing experience. With every iteration, its Surface tablet has become less iPad-like and more laptop-like. This is in part due to Microsoft's failure to attract many apps to its touch environment, a fate that doomed the first two Surface's based on Windows RT.

Surface Pro 3, however, boasted a larger (12") display and dropped the touch cover in favor of one with real keys. At its introduction, Microsoft spoke about the effort that went into making the product's kickstand-balanced form easier to use on one's lap. This is a tablet that only a company with no laptop could sell. Indeed, owing in part to its price, Microsoft compared the Surface Pro more to the MacBook Air than the iPad.

Apple management continues to predict that the tablet has a bright future. It's not too surprising that Tim Cook, who has made pushing into enterprise technology a higher priority than Steve Jobs, has noted the suitability of the iPad to corporate apps. This can be a lucrative market for Apple due to the high average volumes, but the tablet as a work tool is a notion that has been around since the earliest tablet PCs and enterprise distribution doesn't play to its retail strengths..

Apple also recently embarked with its partner IBM on an initiative to make iPads available to Japanese seniors. The simple operation of iPads has made it a favored tool among technology neophytes whether they be four years old or 104 years old. But that simplicity is also a bit of a liability. With a product as simple as the iPad, there doesn't seem to be many directions Apple can take it. There are a few directions that seem unlikely.

Unlike Microsoft, Apple's grasp of the purity of purpose leaves little hope/fear of the company creating some kind of 2-in-1 Mac that features a detachable iPad-like display. It also seems unlikely that Apple will add windowing support to iOS. That said, better keyboard support in the operating system would be helpful when the device is paired with a Bluetooth keyboard as it often is.

Apple seemed to be dragged into the smaller end of the tablet with the release of the iPad mini. The pricing of that product has been attacked aggressively by cheap 7" Android tablets. In typical fashion, Apple hasn't resorted to sacrificing quality to compete on price. On the other hand, the last upgrade to the iPad mini was nominal with the lead feature being the addition of Touch ID.

That leaves at least three rumors would have different implications should they prove true. Let's take them from most impactful to least impactful.

  • Going big. There have been many rumors that Apple will release a larger iPad, an iPad Pro. That might make sense. There are many tasks for which the iPad is used -- such as reading magazines and Web pages -- for which a larger screen would be helpful. Apple competitors such as Lenovo, Samsung and of course Microsoft have all dabbled in 12" tablets. While their sales have been lower than that of smaller models, they offer the opportunity for better margins as well as allowing the iPad to compete a bit more against the MacBooks with their larger display. These could also play well to Apple's enterprise push in displaying more content at once.
  • Pen again. Both Samsung and Microsoft have developed stylus options for their tablets. At the introduction of the iPhone, which laid the interface framework for the iPad, Steve Jobs derided the stylus. Apple, after all, had had some experience with such input devies with the Newton. While Apple could do a better job of integrating stylus input into the iOS user interface than Microsoft and certainly Samsung have, incorporating a stylus poses a few challenges -- they are great for drawing apps but not many others and they need to be stored somewhere, a particular hassle if Apple is to maintain interface consistency with the iPhone. Besides, the essence of the iPad is to be free of external input conveyances such as keyboards and mice. Indeed, with Apple now pushing Force Touch as the first real addition to the iOS input repertoire since its unveiling eight years ago, it seems like bad timing to introduce pen input.
  • ** Tapping into feedback.** First seen in the Apple Watch and recently transplanted to the MacBook's trackpad, Apple's Taptic engine provides feedback that could be use to enhance the glass typing experience on the iPad. That would be a welcome addition but not a game changer.

None of these proposed changes are enough to meaningfully stave off consumers' appetites shifting more toward larger phones and sleeker laptops, a trend that has Apple crying all the way to the banks that have lower valuations than it does. But at least a larger screen option could add some capability, excitement and differentiation to the tablet's declining fortunes.

29 Comments
  • It's been brought up in other circles, but IMHO the biggest reason for the drop in iPad sales is that everyone who currently has one is happy with it and hasn't felt the need to upgrade to a newer model. I can say that between my desktop and iPad 4, I reach for my iPad for my personal computing needs 10x more than my desktop. It's portability and 'couch-ability' can't be matched by a laptop. I can pay my bills while kicked back in my recliner, what's not to like about that? That being said, I haven't been given a compelling reason to replace my iPad 4 with an Air 2, because my current one does everything that I need it to do. Call it a case of Apple making their products too well and lasting too long. I firmly believe that the wall street analysts who can't see past the next quarter still think that iPads have the same upgrade cycle as phones (every 2 years), when it's more similar to PC's which is way more than 2 years. You're not going to have the same turnover in iPads like you do with iPhones because people are holding on to the ones they have for much longer.
  • I totally agree with you. Only recently, I have found an app, that doesn't work on my iPad 4 so, there's really no need for me to upgrade to a newer version, even if it's lighter and smaller than the one I have now.
    Of course there's also Touch ID, but since I don't own an iPhone, it doesn't make much difference to me.
    I think the only way for Apple to push more iPads, is if we can't upgrade the ones we have right now, or if it goes the way the Surface has gone, 2-in-1. That would definitely make me want to upgrade.
  • I'm assuming you're being tongue-in-cheek about Apple not letting people update their current iPads, as that would kill all goodwill Apple has with users. If I wanted a tablet that never got updated after a year, I'd get an Android tablet :P. If the iPad pro rumors are true, I'm really interested to see how it develops. I can't see them going a full 2-in-1 route as they've long said that OSX and iOS will always be separate, but I could see a 'beefed up' iOS being released for the Pro that gives more functionality. I might be in the market for either a new tablet or laptop in the next year. I haven't been able to justify getting myself a MacBook/Air/Pro as my Win7 desktop and iPad work just fine for me, but if this year's iPad update has anything worth upgrading for, and Windows 10 turns out to be as good as promised, I may just stick with my iPad/Windows desktop combo.
  • I wonder if people will upgrade their iPad when the newest iOS version can no longer be used on the iPad 2 and iPad Mini? Sent from the iMore App
  • I 100% agree. I recently purchased an iPad Air 2 and don't see myself upgrading for at least a few years (said the person who thought there could be no improvement over the original Droid Incredible (Dinc) and though would never need to upgrade, lol)
  • I don't have a iPad and I'm considering going with the iPhone 6 plus (or 6 plus S) later this year just to hold out later for a less expensive iPad. A larger 12 inch iPad with extra bells and whistles would be very tempting. Sent from the iMore App
  • I've heard of a lot of people who get the 6 plus say they no longer have need for their iPad. I was really tempted to get the 6 plus, but I determined it would be too big for a daily carry phone, and I like my 10 inch iPad screen over a screen half the size. Depends on what your needs are. Your proposal is definitely valid if it works for you.
  • re: "I've heard of a lot of people who get the 6 plus say they no longer have need for their iPad." It depends what you use it for. iPads were originally added to the iOS line-up as a way to deal with documents (writing, reading, drawing, etc.). Apple has kind of dropped the ball on that usage and most folks now use them just for casual uses like games and watching videos which can be done just as well on a phone. If you still use the iPad for document work though, the iPhone 6 can't even come close to replacing it, even the plus. All you have to do is go to Pages and try to start a new document on the iPhone 6 and you will see how it fails miserably. You are left "key-holing" around a giant document, or shrinking it down to the point where the text is too microscopic to work on. iPads are equivalent to laptops and are supposed to be for "real work". Apple just got dollar signs in it's eyes is all, and forgot to update these capabilities for the last four years.
  • I agree fully. I definitely use my iPad for things that a 5.5 inch iPhone would be terrible at. I'm really hoping we do see at least a little bit of divergence for iOS on iPad compared to iPhone, to take better advantage of the extra screen real estate. Maybe the rumored Pro will kick it off.
  • Hope so. I must admit I've *almost* given up hope after jumping on the "post-PC" bandwagon right out of the starting gate and moving all my work to iOS. Here we are four years later and all Apple has done with the iPad mini is "slightly faster, slightly better screen." Don't even get me started on the lacklustre software.
  • I'm wondering why this article was even written. It purports to tell us the future of iPad but offers nothing but dismal predictions of failure or at best continued lacklustre performance of a device that won't be significantly changed. At least that's the way I read it. The iPad *could* have an interesting and varied future if someone just wants to imagine it. Clearly the author here doesn't have that imagination. I'm still hoping Apple does.
  • When I got to the bottom of the article I had the same feelings. There was no light at the end if the tunnel. Just doomsday. Made me worried about the iPad's future. Sent from the iMore App
  • A 12 inch iPad would be nice but would really hurt the new MacBook's sales. There are already very few (if any) advantages the new MacBook has over an iPad Air 2. A bigger iPad could pretty much make it an after thought unless Apple significantly reduced its price. Sent from the iMore App
  • I completely agree with the above commenter. I recently upgraded to an Air 2 from an iPad 2 that I got back in 2011. I never felt the need to upgrade as my 2 did everything I needed it to, but once the software update began to slow the hardware down, that's when I upgraded. Sent from the iMore App
  • Apple really needs to embrace the 2-in-1 iPad to compete with surface, I believe that to be the future. Of course it would hurt the new Mac sales, but I think the iPad should have USB, mouse, keyboard, and stylus support. Apple would be the company to create a paper like experience for writing with a stylus. Sounds like a lot to carry around but I don't think people would mind if the iPad was a little thicker to allow slots for the extra stuff, heck make a stylus that could double as a mouse and a keyboard on/off feature that can be toggled in control center, along with the stylus/mouse. Two USBC slots, one on each side like chrome book so you can charge and plug another USBC into device. Speakers either on top and bottom of iPad or dual front. Seriously. Quality is noticeably different that from one spot on bottom. Sent from the iMore App
  • I agree about the stylus. How can one have a device that deals with documents, but leave out all the documents created by hand or indeed the possibility of creating a document by hand. The stylus has literally been our main input device for about 40,000 years or so, probably longer, they've always been held the same way in the hand, and used the same way. Then along comes iPad, and we are told that we must now hold our pens like stink bombs, avoid touching the "paper," and settle for the accuracy of a child's finger painting. The stuff you start out with about the "blended device" is just way off the mark though. The Surface is not a popular device, and most people using iOS don't actually need, use, want, or even know how to operate OS X. It's a failed idea that hopefully will never be resurrected. For those of us that use iOS to get real work done, having OS X in there too, would just be a way of taking two thirds of the power and had the storage out of an otherwise eminently useable device.
  • They could delve into what MSFT is planning for Windows 10 called the Continuum. A phone that has features of desktop with tablet grunt.
    Using a table. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDAKCRgSp1I
    Using a Phone Start at 6:30-->10:50 time markers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdzbXo38onQ
  • Personally I am actually putting a lot of faith in force touch... I think that the "contextual click" is going to open a new dimension to app developers and it will spawn new input options that will (IMO) enhance the iOS experience a lot... And the iPad immensely. Bigger iPad and stylus... maybe... but meh for me.
  • Force touch brought to the glass keyboard might finally obviate the need for keyboard docks - you just get no feedback, even if "click" is enabled. The way the MacBook touchpad feels so much like a real click/press, I could imagine that glass keyboard feeling just like the real thing - now we're talking!
  • Then to be productive there's the issue of the screen real estate, even if you go 12'.
  • I think its hard to argue the productiveness with an iPad when it doesn't have auto correct when adding a bluetooth keyboard. Why would I type like this? Or is this a user issue.
  • Rene Ritchie has taken on a pseudonym? Sent from the iMore App
  • No, rene, is at least a positive person. This article is all, "iPad is doomed" and "iPad is irrelevant."
  • Im on the market for a replacement to my 2009 MBP, and seeing as I also have an old iPad 2 that could use a refresh and that I mostly use an iPad mini 2 for any couch surfing/gaming, I'm really thinking about moving to the upcoming Surface Pro 4. I could wait for a hypothetical iPad Pro, but there's no way i'll be remotely interested if it runs iOS. I need a real desktop environment (multitask, using browser X or software Y as default, etc) that lets me download/open/transfer whatever I want and a comprehensive disk access to manage everything the way I want to. And since I dont see Apple doing that without jeopardizing its new MB, the latter is what im stuck with if Im gonna stick with Apple. However it's really not as versatile as a Surface (cant use it as casually as the Surface, even though it is very light).
  • It might be anecdotal but the people I know who have Surfaces (2 of them actually) never use it "casually". So if You go with the Surface, expect to keep that iPad Mini...
  • Personally, the iPad will be around for a while. It's a luxury device. People will buy luxury devices regardless of what's in or out. That said, the iPad will change to meet needs of future customers. A taptic engine in the display of the iPad would be interesting especially for the keyboard. Tapping a key could feel the same as a click on the new MacBook.
  • Lower the prices for iPad then I will buy it. Sent from the iMore App
  • I really like my iPad 4 but I do want to upgrade to the iPad Air 2. Mainly for the larger hard drive so I can store more movies and what not. But then again I can remove movies and photos already watched...decisions Sent from the iMore App
  • Maybe all the new iPad needs is a kickstand... And an SD card slot. Throw in a USB port, *looks at the side of his iPad Air 2 and thinks "yeah, they could fit one there"* and a stylus with a pressure sensitive digitizer like the Surface Pros for artists and note taking, make it a 12" 4k display, and we have a new iPad that people will buy! (I know I would!) Sent from the iMore App