Let iPad be iPad: Why making it a traditional computer isn't the answer

iPad is a huge business. It sold 13 million units over the holidays. That's well over twice the 5.4 million Macs that were sold in the same quarter. It accounts for 85% of tablets priced over $200 and is a business big and profitable enough that every other company in the industry would give almost anything to own it themselves.

Yet, it's not growing. From breakneck acceleration coming out of its second year and a story compelling enough it got millions of people lining up to buy, to year-over-year declines in sales and no hint of a story on the horizon that might turn it all around.

It's led some in the industry to revert back to their roots in traditional computing and claim Apple needs to make the iPad "more capable" in order to make it more successful. As if by meeting the needs of the higher-end computing niche — needs already met by the Mac — will help iPad regain its mainstream appeal.

The iPad Market

From The iPad Market written right after Apple's Q1 2017 results:

That's what Steve Jobs meant when he called iPad the future of computing. His dream, and the consistent goal of Apple over the years, from Apple II to Mac to iMac to iPad, was mainstreaming computer technology. It's also why Jobs spoke of trucks and cars. iPad wasn't a PC, it was something that the majority of people would eventually find more practical than a full-on PC.iPad, at its core, made apps and the web accessible and approachable to people, young and old, who either couldn't, hadn't, or simply never enjoyed using a PC.It's why other vendors who tried to use "full desktop OS", multi-window multitasking, Flash, and other traditional computer paradigms to compete with iPad failed so spectacularly always. It's also why Windows on a tablet wasn't considered a selling point but a detriment. The mainstream didn't want it. They wanted iPad.That's why so many people not only bought an iPad 2, or one of the iPads since then, but have held onto it. It's not just as much computer as they needed, its as much computer as they wanted, and they'll use it until it breaks down and stops being usable.

iPad accelerated faster than any of Apple's previous products, including iPhone, so it hit its current speed limit faster as well. iPad has also proven capable enough and durable enough that, for its intended mainstream market, there's far less pressure to upgrade unless and until whatever version they last bought no longer works. And unlike iPhone with its camera, there hasn't yet been an iPad feature so compelling it drives more frequent upgrades.

So, we have a device that fits the needs of an incredibly large market so well it eats its own growth. How does Apple solve for that?

Not the Mac

It's tempting to suggest Apple fix iPad by making it more like Mac. Like most people in the tech industry, I secretly want every product to be for me. That's what leads to getting an iPad, trying to use it like a Mac, hitting a wall, feeling frustrated, hearing growth isn't going so well, and assuming the answer is to remove those walls and frustrations.

And that's absolutely true... for thousands, maybe even millions of people. The ones already served by the Mac. Not for the tens of millions, maybe even hundreds of millions more for whom the Mac was never serviceable.

iPad's genius is that it's a digital canvas that can become anything to anyone, not just the same old thing for some of us. And it's oppositional to how and why iPad was created and released to begin with.

Doing things like adding Xcode for iPad, drag-and-drop between Split Views, Finder, Terminal, would be great for traditional computer users like me and mine, but it wouldn't move the needle for iPad. Except, potentially, backwards.

iPad's genius is that it's a digital canvas that can become anything to anyone, not just the same old thing for some of us.

At best it would appeal to only a small, existing market. At worst it would make iPad as alienating for the masses as the PCs and DOS-boxes were before it.

It also misses out on what makes iPad so... iPad. Moments like pulling off the keyboard on a plane so you can stop working and start watching. Easily traveling from coffee shop to meeting and back, not just working on designs but letting clients touch them. Taking your references onto the field, into the sky, or on a service run, whether or not you have an internet connection. Easing back into the couch and sketching the night away. Pulling your child onto your lap, tapping the presentation away, and helping them map the stars....

Only iPad

Apple's technical challenge is to keep increasing iPad's capabilities while making those capabilities either accessible to the mainstream, like Pencil or Playgrounds... or invisible. It's why I've written about iPadOS and an iPad designed not to be a Mac but as though there was no Mac — free of assumptions and traditional expectations.

Apple's marketing challenge is much harder. At some point, iPad upgrade cycles will be understood well enough, and its sales will begin to look Mac-enough, that the hot takes will chill out. And that's fine as far as it grows. But to deliver on the promise of being the computer for the rest of us — to return iPad to growth — Apple will need to do more.

Apple needs to show you what you can accomplish with iPad. Only iPad.

They'll need to sell it. Not as Mac alternative. Not by taking it to the depths of the ocean or the tops of mountains. Apple will need to sell iPad as iPad. They'll need to show how it can empower *everyone — your child, your grandparent, your business, your band, your teacher, your student, your family — you.

We've gotten moments of that before. iPad 2 was the best example with "We believe". Some of the less ostentatious, more relatable aspects of "Your Verse" hit on it as well. But it's never been sustained. It's never stuck on empowering the individual. On you. On me.

Apple needs to show you what you can accomplish with iPad. Only iPad.

It's the most personal computer Apple has ever made. Every iPad customer has a very personal story about how they use it and what it means to them. Many of those stories are inspiring.

Tell those stories.

My colleague, Serenity Caldwell, decided to start doing exactly that. See her new weekly column, The iPad Pros for more.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

33 Comments
  • I agree! iPad has had an enormous positive impact on many types of users and usage patterns. It opened up more and more innovative pathways of how to get stuff done. For many users it's all the computing power they ever need. And for others it's a helpful accessory next to many others.
    Personally I had hoped that in the long run I could actually use iPad in a maxed out version to organize and edit video even in full 4K. Obviously Apple has no intention of going there. It took forever to get to 256GB storage space. Several iOS devices record 4K footage, but none can show the full resolution on its built in screen. Compatibility to other cameras even in regular HD quality is still limited. That's why after the release of the 10" iPad Pro and no real improvement, I decided to abandon iPad altogether and go to MacBook Pro Retina and iPhone 7 Plus. That way I have a powerhouse iOS device in a hybrid size between iPhone and iPad in my pocket and an enormously capable and compatible computing monster in my backpack.
    Bottom line: iPad is a fantastic device and it plays a significant role in today's society for many great reasons. But it might not be the perfect choice for everyone. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm sorry to say it but what you wanted in this article exists and it's called the Microsoft Surface yes I know it's not an apple product. Before you go and scoff at me for saying that, but it is exactly they type of device you described as wanting in your article, a tablet that has the hourse power to do real work unlike the ipad pro. Yes it runs Windows but that's not a bad thing. As Windows 10 is a monumental improvement over previous versions and the anniversary edition has further improved it. Now before I get the fan boy screamed at me. I have to inform viewers of this page that I'm not at all. I'm an equally opertuites person. I chose and android phone but was given an iPhone for work I chose a Mac pro as it runs both OS's and was what I needed, with in the space to power ratio. I also own a Surface for propper computing on the go. My point is that people get blinded by the apple distortion field and don't see that there are alternatives. Not only that, but because of apple suckses the alternatives have had to be truly spectacular to even get a look in. The alternatives are often just as pleasant to use and do a lot more for a lot less. Heck... If you really wanted to you can run ios with a bit of not to geeky effort on a Surface or even Mac OS. It's not treason to look elsewhere. It also keeps apple on task producing great products if we don't blindly by the next apple product if it dose not do what we want it to.
  • Despite the hype by Microsoft and its supporters, the Surface line has been a failure. They've never exceeded about 3.7 million sales for a year, not a quarter. The average price exceeds $1,250, when the required (for most users) keyboard is included. Surface sales actually went down in 2016, though, not be a large percentage. Surface isn't really a tablet, but a lightweight Windows pc without built-in keyboard. If that's what someone wants, that's fine, but Microsoft has failed to convince a large number of people that it is indeed what they want. It's highly unlikely that they ever will.
  • No really that's not it for almost anyone on the fence between a MacBook and an iPad. Windows adds complexity above and beyond MacOS so why would I go a step beyond the MacBook with Windows? For a touch screen? That doesn't really make a lot of sense since if I'm already on the Mac, none of my software deals well with a touchscreen. If I'm already on an iPad then I can use the iPad I have as a touchscreen for the Mac (with a little software.) I think few Mac users will find a Windows 10 device a reasonable alternative. And if you are using an iPad because MacOS is too complex, then I can see no case where switching to Windows will make things easier. On the other hand, if you have used Windows in the past and liked it and are thinking about moving back, now may be the perfect time. A Surface or SurfaceBook may not be cheap but they look like very nice machines now that Microsoft has worked out the majority of the kinks. BTW, it appears your powerful Surface doesn't have a working spell-checker.
  • Though for a lot of people Windows is still a deal-breaker. I've used Windows for years, and I've used Windows 10, but I still prefer the way macOS works and I've got apps such as Paw (https://paw.cloud) which I use for development that are only available on macOS. I've still experienced some weird issues on Windows 10 which have generally existed in Windows for a long time, it's still core Windows underneath, but I know it has improved a lot. If you know you can adapt to Windows, then definitely go for the Surface, but for me I'm sticking with the Mac. I'm still happy without having a touchscreen on my computer, I can still do everything I need to, plus with the work that I do (web development/programming) a touchscreen wouldn't offer me too many benefits
  • Rene, Phil Schiller needs to hire you to run iPad marketing at Apple. You guys at iMore tell the iPad story better than Apple ever has.
  • I'm tired of hearing this old concept of the iPad just being an iPad, and nothing else. It seems to me that those saying this don't really understand the concept of computing as well as they think they do. There is no reason why giving us what many of us want in terms of better access to the file system, a true windowing system, and other features, would make the device more complex for those who don't need those features. Right now, Apple has moved, belatedly, into those concepts with split screen and iCloud storage, with an onboard folder with limited access to some files. I can't believe that this has made it more complex for those who never use (or who aren't aware of) those features. Though, when swiping from the right side, sometimes the split screen will appear even though it's not expected. Apple has the Settings app for a purpose. There is no reason why it can't give us access to those advanced features by allowing us to turn them on. Those who don't want, or need, those features, don't have to turn them on. It's really pretty simple. I would like to see the iPad evolve. By refusing to think that more sophisticated access is needed, that evolution is stunted. I certainly don't expect to see a 6 core Desktop processor in there, but Apple's own SoCs are becoming pretty powerful as it is. More RAM would enable photo, video and other high requirement apps to work better. We are using these apps now, and every time Apple wraps improvements in, they get better, and more powerful. With the addition of color management in iOS 9, and mostly completed in iOS 10, we're getting the ability to do pro level work on a tablet, particularly with the DCI-P3 gamut, and the Pencil. 4GB is a good start, but we really need 8 for all of this. Eventually, even more. I own every 9.7", and larger, ipad since the very first, except for the 4, so I'm pretty familiar with its evolution. I believe that it really needs to move even further. I don't want macOS onboard, as Microsoft has done with their Surface line. But Apple can, and should, enable more abilities for the professional user base. There seems to be an unwarranted fear that sophistication will lead to lost sales. But while the article does mention dropping sales, it doesn't mention the huge drop in these sales, which is amounting to almost 20% a year. If this continues, then in about 3 years, sales will be in the high single digit millions a year. This is not the vision we all expected. Apple, and these talking about how much THEY want the iPad to remain the same, need to reevaluate their understanding of this market. People need a good reason to upgrade, and Apple needs to give them that reason. Right now, they aren't.
  • The point Rene was making is that making the iPad so you have a resaon to upgrade is not nesessarily what the iPad needs. Personally, I'm really sick of hearing people say "pushing files around" is going to make the iPad a real "pro" device. If the iPad ever got to a point where I had to use a file manager again, the point of having a unique, simple machine would be gone - I might as well be using Windows.
  • Again, you seem to be making the usual knee jerk reaction. The way you worded your response, gives me the feeling that you didn't understand my post. If Apple doesn't give people reasons to upgrade, then what, exactly, do you think they will do, and what do you think that will do to sales? What do,you think it's been doing to sales? It's much more than "pushing files around". No one is pushing files around, even in macOS. Also I didn't say that anyone should "have" to use a file manager. I said quite the opposite. Yeah, you really don't understand my post.
  • Yes. Please let the iPad continue to be "The iPad". Lots and lots (and lots of lots) of articles have been written about ways to change the iPad so it is no longer The iPad, but something else. All the articles seems to be written by busy work-place people who want to use a keyboard all 24 hours of the day. Also they want the combined possibilities of what is possible with Windows and Mac Sierra in a multiuser environment built into the iPad. But there are other types of iPad users out there. Look at your mom and dad, when you visit them, and look at your grandparents. They definitely do not want the hassle of an advanced Mac Sierra or Windows operating system. They do not want a multi-family iPad with a login for each family member. They want an entertainment and easy communication tool they can use when they sit in the couch with their coffee. All the young work-place people are looking and reviewing iPad cases with keyboards. So they can use the iPad as if it was a laptop computer of some sorts. But look and see what wise old people select when they want the perfect iPad case. They buy a Zoogue (now Zugu) case. - It has no keyboard. But it is the perfect sofa case as the supporting bottom of the case faces AWAY from the user. It lets you choose the perfect angle for the screen no matter how you are placed in the couch or no matter if your feet are placed in the couch, on the coffee table or somewhere else. There is always the perfect angle for Netflix, Safari, Mail, iMessage, FaceTime, Google Earth and your current iBook and your photos og your chess app.. My wife has an iPad Air near the chair and couch. And an iPad mini besides the bed. When she wants to use "a computer" she turns to her 4K 21" iMac. Or to her iPhone 6S. I do the same with my own iPad Pro and iMac. I do not have an iPad Mini. But that is because I do not need one. I also do not have a laptop. Same reason. If I wanted a "couch computer" I would by a laptop for that purpose. But I/we do not buy laptops. We want the well functioning, rather easy to understand (and remember) IOS single user operating system. And we keep our iPads very much single user iPads. All you young city-smart workers and writers will yourselves want The iPad someday when you do not work 24 hours a day anymore. And some point you hopefully will realize that not all people in the world are computer geeks or busy office workers. Many, many, many people have never had a computer, and even more many many people have never worked in an office. The iPad is ment to be the easy accessible internet device for all those people. - There are many different machines available for all you working office people. But there is only one iPad with IOS available for the rest of us. So please let us keep the iPad as it is.
  • Again, a failure to understand the situation, and how Apple can go about implementing it. All of you who seem to think that Apple will ruin the iPad for all of these who are unsophisticated in their understanding, and primitive in their use of the device, don't realize that Apple can easily hide all of this from the user who doesn't need it, or is simply afraid of it. Do you people really think that Apple has to have advanced features up front, and always there? They don't, you know. Go to settings, and look at the complex functions available there now. Many people never bother, and yet, use their iPads just fine. These who do need these features, go and turn them on. It's really not a big deal, and it's hard to understand why some people get out of shape over this. Apple has made it very clear that the iPad Pro models, at least, are mostly intended for business, government and creative markets. By restricting what they can do, those markets will also be restricted. And while I suppose those who seem to think, mistakenly, that iPads are mostly intended for, and should be oriented to, those who can't use a classic computing device, they are wrong. iPads can be used by all markets, as long as the feature set for these markets are aboard. And again, more sophisticated features can be hidden from most users, and turned on by these who need them. I just don't see what the problem is here.
  • I agree that there is no reason that they cannot add more advanced features without sacrificing the current simplicity. However I also agree with Rene that trying to make it as powerful as a traditional computer would almost certainly come at the cost of that simplicity. It’s a trade off, but there is still certainly plenty of room for increasing the functionality without complicating things. Rene says that drag and drop across split views would only be for power users, but I actually think that split views themselves are more of a power user feature than allowing drag and drop between them. Anyone who uses split views is unlikely to be confused by the concept of drag and drop. When 3D Touch comes to the iPad then drag and drop between split views seems an ideal use of it, and would also be a good use case for marketing what 3D Touch is capable of. Having said that I only use my iPad for browsing and email, so I doubt that I would use any advanced features even if Apple did finally add them!
  • "However I also agree with Rene that trying to make it as powerful as a traditional computer would almost certainly come at the cost of that simplicity." Then Apple should stop telling us its a "Super Computer".
  • Reread your first and second sentences. Which is it? They can make it more sophisticated and keep it simple for most folks, or they can't? You can't have it both ways. "They can add more functionality without complicating things." That's exactly what I'm saying. I find it incongruous that people would still be looking at what Steve said about tablets as though it was written in stone. Steve was not perfect by any means, and he made many mistakes over the years. How about his concept of simplicity, with a one button mouse, because he though that two buttons was too much for most people to use? Didn't Windows prove that false early on? What about the round mouse that came with the early iMacs? How often was that criticized? Yet, it was used for years. What happened to the Cube? That was great computer that was much more upgradable than Apple wanted to admit, or advertise. They sold just 50,000 before it was discontinued. They could have fixed minor problems and advertised it better, but Steve just got rid of it. There are lots more examples I could cite, going back to the original error of making the first Macs closed systems. The point is that when major new product categories first come out, a direction may be called out, but over time, the direction almost always diverges from that original intent. That's because new use cases come up that require a modified view of where the product is going. Smartphones are a great example. The original call phones were pretty simple, smartphones are anything but. However, despite that increased complexity, they've taken over the market. Apple is responsible for that. When we get some people who don't understand that, for whatever reason, and prevent the natural evolution of those products, the products die. We are seeing that now, with a large dip in sales for several years. It was expected that by now, Apple would be selling 100 million iPads a year, but it looks as though only 35 to maybe 40 million will be sold this year. That's just about half of its peak. Clearly, something is wrong. Either the use case was wrong, or expectations were wrong. Either way, a change is needed. That should be obvious. And with the major push into industry and government, the flagship models, at least, need a major overhaul. I'm really sorry, but the concept of the simple device for grandma isn't good enough any more.
  • I have reread my first two sentences and they are not mutually exclusive, just as your opinion and Rene’s opinion are also not completely at odds. I said that there is room for more advanced functionality without affecting simplicity (as you say), and I also said that making it as powerful as a traditional computer would impinge upon that simplicity (as Rene says). I agree with you in that I also want to see more functionality in the iPad (as evidenced by the rest of my post). I disagree with some of the details of Rene's article (e.g. drag and drop), but the main theme is that simplicity is paramount when it comes to the iPad, which is something that I strongly agree with. Basically I agree with you both! Although I get the feeling that you will still disagree with me...
  • Why exactly is it so important to change the iPad into just another laptop? There are plenty of those already, so there seems to be no reason to want the iPad to change into something that already exists. - You can also hide many complicated features on the computers. But there is always the fear of accidentally "unhiding it" built into us unsofisticated users. And if if this is done to the iPad then us unsofisticated users would - again - be afraid of going into Settings and try something new. We would - again - have to be afraid to mess something up so we would - again - have to call our young nephew for help! And we like very much that you really can't mess up the iPad. This is the best part of the iPad. No fear of messing things up.
  • I agree. Keep iPad as it is. I'm a 69 year old former office administrator who was there at the beginnings of the computer age. I've used word processors, office desktop computers, home computers, cell phones that evolved into computers, Android tablets and I'm now on my second iPad, having recently upgraded from an iPad Air 2 to an iPad Pro 12.9. I'm retired now and I spend most of my days on my new toy. I don't need to draw or write, but I do enjoy being able to use my reading glasses less often. I truly enjoy my iPad Pro 12.9.
  • I love it when someone agrees with what I say! I worte this back in 2013: https://holtthink.tumblr.com/post/71348954811 The point is, the value add of a device that changes with the user cannot be underestimated. What has happened over the course of a year or so, is the IT people in school districts across the country are desperately trying to make iPads into laptops because that is the model of management they know. In the course of doing so they are changing the conversation in ed tech and looking backwards. The conversation needs to change. We need to change the conversation and say “How does this device, whatever it is, meet the FUTURE NEEDS of our students best?” The conversation needs to be FORWARD looking. Not BACKWARDS looking.
  • I agree the way forward for the iPad is not emulating PCs. What I think *is* the way forward, though, is much harder. Analyst Benedict Evans (of a16z) has often talked about what work people are actually trying to accomplish and how they tend to think of their work as a series of tasks or procedures – working in Excel spreadsheets or using X software to do Y. A person's actual job, however, is the output. It's the final product.. Maybe you don't need a spreadsheet, but a dashboard (because your job is to derive meaning from the numbers rather than push them around). Maybe your job isn't using X software but booking a vacation, creating a marketing plan, or selling something. To do this, we need for small businesses to have access to custom software like the big companies get from Salesforce and IBM. Streamline, remove friction, use the sensors in mobile and connectivity with other people's devices to eliminate most manual input. Imagine every small business could afford to hire an app developer with a cadre of UX specialists, designers, developers, and operations folks. This isn't possible today, but it's important for the iPad that Apple try and think of how to get from here to there. Maybe that involves making it MUCH easier for everyone to make their own apps. Some super easy Hypercard style development system so business owners feel empowered to create their own solutions. Maybe there's a Squarespace for Swift apps. Maybe Apple spends more supporting smaller app development studios and providing more advice so they can crank out $20k solutions that measurably improve the business. The problem with a lot of future concept videos is that people appear to be doing the same amount (or more) of work – swinging files around with their arms, opening apps by pointing, pinching to expand data – but because it's all on a transparent screen, we're supposed to believe this is an improvement. All this is to say I don't know what the future of the interface looks like, but to say it's a solved problem.. that babysitting my files and managing windows is the best we'll figure out on the iPad is to sell the future of computing short.